Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Spleen" (Times Three)

One could not be a Decadent poet of the 1890s without having an acquaintance with "spleen."  In this case, "spleen" derives from the ancient "four humors" theory of the body.  This theory posits that our maladies, as well as our temperaments, may be traced back to the four humors:  blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Black bile is usually associated with the spleen, and, in turn, with melancholia.   Suffering a bout of "spleen" was quite attractive to the Decadents.

This attraction was heightened by the importance of "spleen" to the French Symbolist poets from whom the poets of the Nineties took their lead.  For example, both Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine wrote poems with that title.  Not surprisingly, the Decadents tried their hands at translating the poems.  Three versions of Verlaine's "Spleen" follow -- by John Gray, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons.


The roses every one were red,
And all the ivy leaves were black.

Sweet, do not even stir your head,
Or all of my despairs come back.

The sky is too blue, too delicate:
Too soft the air, too green the sea.

I fear -- how long had I to wait! --
That you will tear yourself from me.

The shining box-leaves weary me,
The varnished holly's glistening,

The stretch of infinite country;
So, saving you, does everything.

John Gray, Silverpoints (1893).

                          John William Inchbold, "Bolton Abbey" (1853)


Around were all the roses red,
The ivy all around was black.

Dear, so thou only move thine head,
Shall all mine old despairs awake!

Too blue, too tender was the sky,
The air too soft, too green the sea.

Always I fear, I know not why,
Some lamentable flight from thee.

I am so tired of holly-sprays
And weary of the bright box-tree,

Of all the endless country ways;
Of everything alas! save thee.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations (1899).

 John William Inchbold, "Springtime in Spain, near Gordella" (1869)


The roses were all red,
The ivy was all black:
Dear, if you turn your head,
All my despairs come back.

The sky was too blue, too kind,
The sea too green, and the air
Too calm:  and I know in my mind
I shall wake and not find you there.

I am tired of the box-tree's shine
And the holly's, that never will pass,
And the plain's unending line,
And of all but you, alas!

Arthur Symons, Knave of Hearts (1913).

I prefer Gray's version.  This is solely a matter of emotion, and is not based upon any knowledge of the French original.  Dowson's version seems a bit overwrought, and Symons's seems a bit flat.  Of course, it could certainly be said that choosing between the three is a matter of "six of one, half a dozen of the other."

                                              John William Inchbold
                         "The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor)" (1854)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Charred Wood": Two Variations On A Theme

The following poems by C. H. Sisson and Philippe Jaccottet share the same closing image.  They perhaps have other things in common as well:  time and aging and memory, for instance.  Both poems are somewhat elusive (for me, at least).  However, they certainly sound lovely (as I often say when confronted with such difficulties).


If I had done differently I should have done well;
Differently is better, it could not have been worse.
I cannot stand, looking, as into a fire,
Into the past.  There is only the charred wood.

C. H. Sisson, Exactions (1980).

           Eric Hubbard (1892-1957), "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"


The older I grow the more ignorant I become,
the longer I live the less I possess or control.
All I have is a little space, snow-dark
or glittering, never inhabited.
Where is the giver, the guide, the guardian?
I sit in my room and am silent; silence
arrives like a servant to tidy things up
while I wait for the lies to disperse.
And what remains to this dying man
that so well prevents him from dying?
What does he find to say to the four walls?
I hear him talking still, and his words
come in with the dawn, imperfectly understood:

'Love, like fire, can only reveal its brightness
on the failure and the beauty of burnt wood.'

Derek Mahon (translator), Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

           George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Dwell In Some Decent Corner Of Your Being"

Pascal's best-known observation on the human condition is perhaps this: "I have often said, that all the Misfortune of Men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their Chamber."  The translation is by Joseph Walker, who published the first English translation of Pascal's Pensees in 1688.  In an edition published in 1908, W. F. Trotter translated the same passage as follows:  "I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber."

As one's youthful infatuation with utopian thought-projects dissipates (sooner rather than later for some; never for others -- e.g., politicians and other busybodies), one begins to see the wisdom of Pascal's view of things. Of course, staying in one's chamber is easier said than done, especially in our youth, when our physical and mental capacities seem limitless.  But, as we enter our middle and late years, it begins to make more sense:  one has seen enough to know that the World would be a much better place if some people just stayed put in their room.

                                                       Charles Ginner
                                       "Spring Day at Boscastle" (1943)

I offer the following poems by James Reeves and C. H. Sisson as possible corollaries to Pascal's thought.  I think of them from time-to-time, especially when the World seems madder than is usually the case.


Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                                       Charles Ginner, "The Greenhouse"

               The Commonplace

A commonplace is good for nothing now,
Yet that is how the world goes, all the same:
Nothing is what you had when you set out,
And nothing you will have when you go home.

C. H. Sisson, Exactions (1980).

                               Charles Ginner, "The Winged Faun" (1926)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

If Only

It is time for a respite from "extinction's alp" (Philip Larkin) and the municipal bus ride to the River Styx (Norman MacCaig).  I am skeptical of utopias (philosophical, theological, political, artistic, or otherwise). However, I am willing to entertain any dreams that humanity may come up with.  (Unless those dreams involve telling other people how to live or what to do.  This, of course, disqualifies approximately 99% of utopian schemes.) For instance, I am willing to acknowledge (albeit reluctantly) that people are entitled to believe that "Imagine" is John Lennon's best song, and that it provides a possible blueprint for reality.  (I, on the other hand, would opt for "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "If I Fell," or a dozen or so other of his songs.)

Still, I am willing to give the dreamers a hearing.  Thus, I offer the following poems by A. S. J. Tessimond and Michael Hartnett.

               Algernon Newton, "The Regent's Canal, Paddington" (1930)


One day people will touch and talk perhaps easily,
And loving be natural as breathing and warm as sunlight,
And people will untie themselves, as string is unknotted,
Unfold and yawn and stretch and spread their fingers,
Unfurl, uncurl like seaweed returned to the sea,
And work will be simple and swift as a seagull flying,
And play will be casual and quiet as a seagull settling,
And the clocks will stop, and no-one will wonder or care or notice,
And people will smile without reason, even in the winter, even in the rain.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).

         Algernon Newton, "Birmingham with the Hall of Memory" (1929)

          There Will Be a Talking

There will be a talking of lovely things
there will be cognizance of the seasons,
there will be men who know the flights of birds,
in new days there will be love for women:
we will walk the balance of artistry.
And things will have a middle and an end,
and be loved because being beautiful.
Who in a walk will find a lasting vase
depicting dance and hold it in his hands
and sell it then?  No man on the new earth
will barter with malice nor make of stone
a hollowed riddle:  for art will be art,
the freak, the rare no longer commonplace:
there will be a going back to the laws.

Michael Hartnett, A Farewell to English (The Gallery Press 1978).

Shall we take Tessimond and Hartnett at their word?  Are they on the level? Perhaps Thomas Hardy, that old Pessimist, got it right in "The Oxen":

                     . . . Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
   'Come; see the oxen kneel

'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
   Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
   Hoping it might be so.

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

                 Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Four: "I Move Along Again, Towards The Exit"

We are often advised to take heed of the old saw "life is a journey, not a destination."  I can see that this homily perhaps has some merit.  Still, when I hear it repeated, I think:  "Well, yes, but a destination does in fact await us."  And what might that destination be?  Each of us ought to know the answer to that.

This is where Philip Larkin comes in handy.  Jolly old Philip is always more than happy to fill in these sorts of blanks, and I confess that I usually agree with his answers.

                . . . For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is.  This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground.

This bit of reality appears in the final stanza of "The Old Fools," one of Larkin's more scarifying efforts.  (Scarifying, but true, of course.)  Perhaps a gayer facade will make this particular piece of news more palatable. Norman MacCaig had, in general, a more sanguine view of things than Larkin did -- although, like Larkin, he never averted his eyes.  He just makes things sound better.

                             Mary Dawson Elwell, "The Front Door" (1940)

          Double Journey

Move along! the driver shouts.
Move along there!

All day I've been doing that.
All my life I've been doing that.

Somewhere about me I have
the traveller's permit
given to me by my mother.

The bus halts.  Some people get off.
I'll never see them again.

Some people get on.
I move along
to make room for them.

The place I know I'm going to
approaches.  I move along again,
towards the exit.

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

That's much better:  a municipal bus ride (in lieu of "extinction's alp") sounds very pleasant indeed.  A. E. Housman's lines fit right in:  "Crossing alone the nighted ferry/With the one coin for fee."

                                              Mary Dawson Elwell
           "Bedroom, Bar House, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1935)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Perspective, Part One: "O Little Waking Hour Of Life Out Of Sleep!"

"Eternity is not length of life but depth of life" -- the epitaph discovered by Charlotte Mew on a child's gravestone in a rural churchyard -- got me to thinking about all of those dreamy, death-haunted poems written by the poets of the 1890s.  I recently posted Ernest Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam," which contains the quintessential Decadent statement on the matter:  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

The following poem by Arthur Symons is reminiscent of Dowson's poem. But, in addition, it -- like the epitaph found by Mew -- helps to put things into perspective.

              Tristram Hillier, "Snails" (from Shell Nature Studies) (1957)


O little waking hour of life out of sleep!
When I consider the many million years
I was not yet, and the many million years
I shall not be, it is easy to think of the sleep
I shall sleep for the second time without hopes or fears.
Surely my sleep for the million years was deep?
I remember no dreams from the million years, and it seems
I may sleep for as many million years without dreams.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).

Of course, one might be prompted to respond:  "That is all very well and good, assuming you have a soul!"

              Tristram Hillier, "Fossils" (from Shell Nature Studies) (1957)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Eternity Is Not Length Of Life But Depth Of Life"

Charlotte Mew, like any self-respecting Victorian poet, wrote her share of graveyard poems.  Although I think of Mew as a modern poet, her life (she was born in 1869, and died in 1928) spanned both the Victorian and the "modern" worlds.  Perhaps her funerary poems are a sort of remnant of her Victorian origins (with a touch of Romanticism thrown in).

Before turning to one of Mew's poems, here is a passage from her essay "The Country Sunday":

"Often on moonlit nights, while from within the church the wheezy voluntary sounded, the moon, to my thought, has touched white headstones, giving them a weird and wakeful prominence -- leaving the unmarked mounds bathed in a gentler, more forgetful light.  Under the sward they slumbered more securely, those of whom men recorded nothing, leaving their virtues and their names with God; those whom man had remembered seeming to have missed their rest.  Still I recall one puzzling line, written on a small marble slab over a child, whose short years numbered only three -- 'Eternity is not length of life but depth of life,' and I have since many times wondered what was the history of that little child."

Charlotte Mew, "The Country Sunday" (published in 1905), Collected Poems and Prose (edited by Val Warner) (Virago Press 1981), page 371.

                     Harold Hussey, "Tomb in Hurley Churchyard" (1940)

It is difficult to top the unknown philosopher who carved "Eternity is not length of life but depth of life" on the child's grave marker.  This rural philosopher may have stolen a march on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, many years later, wrote:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311 (Pears/McGuinness translation).

The following poem by Mew seems appropriate.

            On Youth Struck Down
         (From an unfinished elegy)

Oh! Death what have you to say?
'Like a bride -- like a bride-groom they ride away:
You shall go back to make up the fire,
To learn patience -- to learn grief,
To learn sleep when the light has quite gone out of your earthly skies,
But they have the light in their eyes
               To the end of their day.'

Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).

                                                    John Piper
     "Tombstones, Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges" (1940)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"A Quoi Bon Dire?"

Charlotte Mew's "Smile, Death" (which appeared in my previous post) has a bit of a Romantic/Gothic air to it that is not necessarily characteristic of Mew's poetry as a whole.  Although she certainly addresses Love and Time and Death in her poems, she usually does so in a lower-case fashion.  The following poem is a fine example.  Two possible translations of the title are:  "What's the good of saying/speaking?" or "What's the point of saying/speaking?"

                        Beryl Sinclair (1901-1967), "Winter, Regent's Park"

               A Quoi Bon Dire?

     Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
     And everybody thinks that you are dead,
                         But I.

     So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
     And everybody sees that I am old
                         But you.

     And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
     That nobody can love their way again
                         While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

Charlotte Mew, The Farmer's Bride (1916).

To my mind (and I claim no originality to this thought), the tone and diction of a poem such as "A Quoi Bon Dire?" show that Mew is in the line that moves from Thomas Hardy through Edward Thomas to Philip Larkin (to name the key figures).  This line, which is often thought of as being poetically "traditional" (or "old-fashioned"), sounds more contemporary and more natural to my ear than the oftentimes portentous and artificial "Modernism" of Eliot and Pound and their followers, which to me sounds dated and stilted.

                            Beryl Sinclair, "Winter, Regent's Park" (1941)      

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"On, On Let Us Skate Past The Sleeping Willows Dusted With Snow"

Over the past few posts I have inadvertently stumbled into a sort of contemplation of Life and Fate from a cosmic perspective.  It all began innocently enough with Christina Rossetti's "Love hath a name of Death." From there, one thing led to another.

A return to Earth is in order.  Perhaps an ice-skating excursion with Charlotte Mew (following our earlier excursions with Edmund Blunden and A. S. J. Tessimond) will do the trick.  Although, come to think of it, Mew is not exactly the jolly, happy-go-lucky ice-skating type . . .

                             Eliot Hodgkin, "Six Cape Gooseberries" (1954)

                              Smile, Death

Smile, Death, see I smile as I come to you
Straight from the road and the moor that I leave behind,
Nothing on earth to me was like this wind-blown space,
Nothing was like the road, but at the end there was a vision or a face
               And the eyes were not always kind.

    Smile, Death, as you fasten the blades to my feet for me,
On, on let us skate past the sleeping willows dusted with snow;
Fast, fast down the frozen stream, with the moor and the road and the
  vision behind,
    (Show me your face, why the eyes are kind!)
And we will not speak of life or believe in it or remember it as we go.

Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).  Please note that line 8 is a single line, but the length limitations of this format do not permit it to appear as a single line.  The other (somewhat idiosyncratic) line indentations are Mew's own.

                    Eliot Hodgkin, "Feathers and Hyacinth Heads" (1962)

In a note to the poem, John Newton (the editor and annotator of Mew's Complete Poems) states:  "This poem and 'Moorland Night' are perhaps the poems of Mew's that show the clearest signs of her enthusiasm for Emily Bronte's poetry."  Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).  I would venture to say that, in "Smile, Death," Mew gives Bronte a run for her money when it comes to gloomy moorland meditations.

In any case, I suppose that we have now returned to Earth from the cosmos, after a fashion.

                             Eliot Hodgkin, "Seven Brussels Sprouts" (1955)

Friday, February 10, 2012

"You Are A Little Soul, Carrying Around A Corpse, As Epictetus Used To Say"

In "From far, from eve and morning" (which appeared in my previous post), A. E. Housman suggests that we are transient souls inhabiting bodies "knit" out of "the stuff of life" that has blown here from "yon twelve-winded sky."  It is only a matter of time before we make our "endless way" back out into "the wind's twelve quarters."  All of this seems reminiscent of an observation made by Epictetus (as recounted by Marcus Aurelius):  "You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse, as Epictetus used to say."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IV.41 (translated by W. A. Oldfather).

The phrase "a little soul" brings to mind a poem by James Reeves.  The poem seems to fit well with Housman's poem, as well as with Epictetus's remark.


No one knows, no one cares --
An old soul
In a narrow cottage,
A parlour,
A kitchen,
And upstairs
A narrow bedroom,
A narrow bed --
A particle of immemorial life.

James Reeves, Poems and Paraphrases (1972).

                      William Victor Higgins, "New Mexico Skies" (1943)

Reeves may have taken his title from the poem that the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) purportedly composed on his death bed.  The poem begins: "Animula vagula blandula."  "Animula" is often translated as "little soul."

Hadrian's poem has been translated hundreds of times.  A few versions of the first line follow.  "My little wand'ring sportful Soule."  (John Donne, 1611.)  "My soul, my pleasant soul and witty."  (Henry Vaughan, 1652.) "Poor little, pretty, fluttering thing."  (Matthew Prior, 1709.)  "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite."  (Lord Byron, 1806.)  "Little soul so sleek and smiling." (Stevie Smith, 1966.)  Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (1995), pages 508-509.

"Animula" is also the title of one of T. S. Eliot's "Ariel Poems."  Eliot's poem begins:  "Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul."

                 William Victor Higgins, "Mountains and Valleys" (c. 1921)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"For A Breath I Tarry Nor Yet Disperse Apart"

Christina Rossetti's line "Love hath a name of Death" serves as an appropriate epigraph to the following poem by A. E. Housman.  The poem appears in Housman's A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896. Although Housman was certainly not a "Decadent" 1890s poet, the poem also shares common ground with Ernest Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" and Arthur Symons's "The Soul's Progress."

From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither:  here am I.

Now -- for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart --
Take my hand quick and tell me,
    What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

A. E. Housman, Poem XXXII, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

                          Carel Weight (1908-1997), "House by the Road"

The poem, like many of Housman's poems, may not be as simple as it first seems.  On the one hand, it fits within the "narrative" of A Shropshire Lad (if, in fact, there is a "narrative," which is a matter of debate):  it appears to present another episode of unrequited (or requited, but lost) love. In addition, it evokes the second of Housman's two great themes:  the fleeting nature of life (i.e., "they are not long, the days of wine and roses," to use Dowson's line).

But stating the "themes" of the poem in such a fashion does not do justice to its power.  There is much more afoot.  In the first stanza, Housman creates an atmosphere of universality and of timelessness:  "From far, from eve and morning/And yon twelve-winded sky,/The stuff of life to knit me/Blew hither:  here am I."  One realizes what a miracle it is (regardless of whether or not one holds any religious beliefs) that we exist here, at this moment, on Earth.

This leads directly to the sense of urgency that drives the poem:  "Now -- for a breath I tarry/Nor yet disperse apart --/Take my hand quick and tell me,/What have you in your heart."  ("Disperse apart" is a curious phrase, yet it is entirely apt.)  The desire to establish some connection with another human being before proceeding again on one's "endless way" (into oblivion) seems to go well beyond romantic love, whether requited or unrequited.

But that is one view, and one view only.  Better yet:  please disregard everything I just said.  The poem speaks for itself.

                               Carel Weight, "I Live Here" (c. 1953-1954)

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Love Hath A Name Of Death"

Christina Rossetti's melancholy can be oddly seductive.  Take the following untitled poem by her:  it is far from cheerful, and its message -- "everything passes and vanishes" (to borrow from William Allingham, Rossetti's fellow Victorian poet) -- could be seen as hackneyed.  (To the same extent that truth is hackneyed, I suppose.)  But, ah, the first line!

          Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1944)

Love hath a name of Death:
He gives a breath
And takes away.
Lo we beneath his sway
Grow like a flower;
To bloom an hour,
To droop a day,
And fade away.

Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (Penguin 2001).  The poem first appeared in Rossetti's short story "Commonplace," which was published in 1870.

"Love hath a name of Death" is the sort of line that can only be destroyed by "explication" or "exegesis."  Some might say that this sort of assertion is the lazy way out.  I think not.  Nevertheless, I readily confess to being simple-minded.  Hence, my commentary on the line begins and ends with this:  "It leaves me speechless."  (Which is a variation on my other highest form of "literary" praise:  "It takes my breath away.")  So, there you have it:  "Love hath a name of Death."

                      Osmund Caine, "The Washing at No. 25, Kingston"

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Long And Sluggish Lines"

There are quite a few magnolia trees in my neighborhood.  At this time of year, the large, furry buds begin to emerge.  Wallace Stevens mentions yet-to-awaken magnolias in the following poem -- one of his wonderful late poems, written in his seventies.  It is set in "the pre-history of February."

                    Long and Sluggish Lines

It makes so little difference, at so much more
Than seventy, where one looks, one has been there before.

Wood-smoke rises through trees, is caught in an upper flow
Of air and whirled away.  But it has been often so.

The trees have a look as if they bore sad names
And kept saying over and over one same, same thing,

In a kind of uproar, because an opposite, a contradiction,
Has enraged them and made them want to talk it down.

What opposite?  Could it be that yellow patch, the side
Of a house, that makes one think the house is laughing;

Or these--escent--issant pre-personae:  first fly,
A comic infanta among the tragic drapings,

Babyishness of forsythia, a snatch of belief,
The spook and makings of the nude magnolia?

. . . Wanderer, this is the pre-history of February.
The life of the poem in the mind has not yet begun.

You were not born yet when the trees were crystal
Nor are you now, in this wakefulness inside a sleep.

Wallace Stevens, "The Rock," Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

                         John Aldridge (1905-1983), "February Afternoon"

Stevens's observation that the trees "kept saying over and over one same, same thing" brings to mind his poem "The Region November" (the loveliness of which I have touted on more than one occasion).  In that poem, the trees

. . . sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Ibid.

I will hazard the guess that Stevens wants us to know that we need to move beyond the iterations of the trees, which, though beautiful and real, are nothing in themselves.  And what enables us to move beyond the "saying" of the trees?  "The life of the poem in the mind."

It is important to recognize that, in Stevens's world, "poem" has a definition that goes well beyond "verse":  throughout Stevens's poetry, "poem" means the imagination interacting with the world and the world interacting with the imagination.  Back and forth, back and forth.  The title of another of his late poems perhaps sums this up:  "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination."  (And we mustn't forget "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.")

                           John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

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)