Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I confess that the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke strikes me as being somewhat overwrought and histrionic.  Having said that, I am willing to admit that the fault is my own: I cannot match his romantic passion, and I am too dull to penetrate what seems to me to be his obscurity.  Moreover (and this is likely a crucial "moreover"), because I am bereft of German, I am dependent upon translations -- which no doubt means that I am missing the whole point.

Still, because I consider this to be a blog about enthusiasms, not strictures, I do not intend to warn anybody off Rilke's poetry.  Although my tastes tend to run to the likes of Larkin and Edward Thomas and Hardy, I am not interested in grinding axes.  Life is too short.

Well, after that little diversion, there are poems by Rilke that I like a great deal.  The following poem (which, as it happens, was translated by Randall Jarrell) came to mind after I posted Jarrell's "The Breath of Night." Twilight, stars in the trees, eternity, mortality, and so on . . .

                     James Bateman (1893-1959), "Woodland and Cattle"


The evening folds about itself the dark
Garments the old trees hold out to it.
You watch: and the lands are borne from you,
One soaring heavenward, one falling;

And leave you here, not wholly either's,
Not quite so darkened as the silent houses,
Not quite so surely summoning the eternal
As that which each night becomes star, and rises;

And leave you (inscrutably to unravel)
Your life: the fearful and ripening and enormous
Being that -- bounded by everything, or boundless --
For a moment becomes stone, for a moment stars.

Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Randall Jarrell), in Randall Jarrell, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960).

                               James Bateman, "Lullington Church" (1939)

For purposes of comparison, here is another translation of the same poem.


The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

Stephen Mitchell (editor and translator), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1982).

              James Bateman, "The Pool, Blockley, Gloucestershire" (1926)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"The Breath Of Night"

The following poem by Randall Jarrell is, I think, a nice companion piece to A. E. Housman's planetary "parable" that appeared in my previous post. Jarrell was fond of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, and the poem feels a bit like the beginning of a fairy tale -- idyllic, but with a darkening path, disappearing into a deep forest, ahead.

                                  Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

          The Breath of Night

The moon rises.  The red cubs rolling
In the ferns by the rotten oak
Stare over a marsh and a meadow
To the farm's white wisp of smoke.

A spark burns, high in heaven.
Deer thread the blossoming rows
Of the old orchard, rabbits
Hop by the well-curb.  The cock crows

From the tree by the widow's walk;
Two stars, in the trees to the west,
Are snared, and an owl's soft cry
Runs like a breath through the forest.

Here too, though death is hushed, though joy
Obscures, like night, their wars,
The beings of this world are swept
By the Strife that moves the stars.

Randall Jarrell, Losses (1948).

Jarrell's poem and Housman's "Revolution" both bring to mind Wordsworth's lines:  "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees."

             Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Friday, July 27, 2012


My previous post was something of a rant about the reaction of the media to the recent mass murder in Colorado.  I always regret such rants:  they raise my blood pressure and, worse, they enmesh me in a contemporary culture that I prefer to leave to its own devices.  Better to keep one's own house in order.  And keep one's mouth shut.  And keep the television turned off.

Moreover, what I was inarticulately attempting to say is much better said by A. E. Housman in the following poem.  Of the poem, Housman wrote: "most readers do not seem to see that it is a parable."  Archie Burnett (editor), The Letters of A. E. Housman, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press 2007), page 610.

                                   Emily Carr, "Inside a Forest" (c. 1935)


West and away the wheels of darkness roll,
     Day's beamy banner up the east is borne,
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal
     Drown in the golden deluge of the morn.

But over sea and continent from sight
     Safe to the Indies has the earth conveyed
The vast and moon-eclipsing cone of night,
     Her towering foolscap of eternal shade.

See, in mid heaven the sun is mounted; hark,
     The belfries tingle to the noonday chime.
'Tis silent, and the subterranean dark
     Has crossed the nadir, and begins to climb.

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

                                   Emily Carr, "Forest Landscape" (1932)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Yet The Heart Would Counsel Ill"

The recent terrible event in Colorado has provoked the usual media-led "analysis."  To wit: "How could this happen?"  "Why did this happen?" "How can we prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again?"  To this end, the standard parade of so-called "experts" (criminologists, psychologists, "social scientists" of all stripes, lawyers, politicians, et cetera) are asked to explain this latest horror to us.

Of course, the absurd premise is that "analysis" of this sort will enable us to understand why this event took place.  Yes, yes:  if we can just understand, all will be well.

I do not wish to minimize, or to be glib about, the event itself:  it is horrible and tragic.  Lives have been lost; other lives have been changed for ever. But I find the urge to explain and understand the event through the media and its "experts" to be symptomatic of a profound shallowness in the modern world's view of the ultimate mystery of human nature.

                                                           John Nash
                              "The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble" (c. 1922)

Bells in tower at evening toll,
And the day forsakes the soul;
Soon will evening's self be gone
And the whispering night come on.

Blame not thou the faulting light
Nor the whispers of the night:
Though the whispering night were still,
Yet the heart would counsel ill.

A. E. Housman, Poem XVII (untitled), More Poems (1936).

                    John Nash, "Walled Pond, Little Bredy, Dorset" (1923)

Monday, July 23, 2012

"I Am Just Going Outside And May Be Some Time"

Randall Jarrell's "90 North" prompted me (in pedestrian fashion) to think of the following polar poem by Derek Mahon, which takes place at 90 South rather than at 90 North.  The poem is a villanelle, and one of the refrains is:  "I am just going outside and may be some time."  These words were spoken by Captain Lawrence Oates in March of 1912.

Oates was a member of Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole, which began on November 1, 1911.  After reaching the Pole, the five-man group began the return trip.  Oates was suffering from frostbite to his feet, and his condition was slowing down the group, which was running out of food. On March 15, 1912, knowing that his condition was endangering the lives of the others, Oates asked them to leave him behind.  They refused.  On the morning of March 16 or 17 (Scott, who was recording events in his diary, had lost track of the date), Oates said to the others:  "I am just going outside and may be some time."  He left the tent and was never seen again.

His sacrifice was unavailing.  The remaining members of the group died less than two weeks later after a blizzard prevented them from reaching their next food cache.

      Thomas Moran,"The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1893-1901)


'I am just going outside and may be some time.'
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest?  No,
He is just going outside and may be some time --

In fact, for ever.  Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
'I am just going outside and may be some time.'
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1986).

                                                      Thomas Moran
             "Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory" (1882)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Eight: "Pain Comes From The Darkness/And We Call It Wisdom. It Is Pain."

The middle of summer may seem like an odd time to offer up the following poem by Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), given its frigid setting.  However, it popped into my head for some reason, and it is, I think, a poem fit for any season.

Jarrell is now perhaps best known as a critic of poetry.  His criticism is free of the jargon, theory, and political agendas that taint most contemporary criticism.  He displays a deep knowledge of, and a devotion to, poetry. (There was a time, believe it or not, when criticism was written out of love.) He wrote perceptive essays on, among others, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Robert Graves.  His observations are still incisive and thought-provoking more than half-a-century later.

His poetry has suffered from some neglect in recent years (with the exception of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which has long been a standard anthology piece).  However, he wrote a number of fine poems that deserve greater attention.

I first encountered the following poem in my younger years, and I was quite taken with it at the time.  Reading it now, I find that, well, I am still quite taken with it, but perhaps for less romantic, more prosaic, reasons.  As I have noted before, rereading poems is always a good idea, since you are not the same person that you were when you last read them, whether the interval is months, years, or decades.

                              Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

                              90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night -- till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh:  the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end?  In the darkness I turned to my rest.

-- Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice.  I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
                                         And now what?  Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world -- my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness:  all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless.  In the child's bed
After the night's voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain -- in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone --

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness -- that the darkness flung me --
Is worthless as ignorance:  nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness.  Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom.  It is pain.

Randall Jarrell, Blood for a Stranger (1942).

Well, what can I say?  Jarrell himself called it "a pessimistic poem."  But there you have it.  The Larkinite in me is drawn to the final two lines: "Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom.  It is pain."  If I came across those lines not knowing of "90 North," I would swear that Larkin had written them.  Jarrell wrote the poem in 1941, when Larkin was 19 years old, so Jarrell's harrowing expedition preceded Larkin's later exploration of the same territory.

                Douglas Percy Bliss, "Urban Garden Under Snow" (c. 1946)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hospital Poems, Part Five: "And If I Am Lucky, Find Some Link, Some Link"

I have previously suggested that Bernard Spencer (1909-1963) is a "neglected poet."  Thus, I am pleased to report that his poems have recently come back into print (Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose, edited by Peter Robinson, Bloodaxe Books).  As I noted in my earlier post on Spencer, his poetry reminds me of that of Louis MacNeice (they were, in fact, acquaintances; they both died too young in September of 1963). Perhaps the resemblance has something to do with an urbanity of tone, together with a certain irony, with a bit of reserve thrown in.  (I suppose that this description fits a number of English poets of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.  A. S. J. Tessimond comes to mind, for instance.)

Spencer worked for the British Council in various European (usually Mediterranean) countries.  His poetry vividly reflects all of the locations in which he lived.  At one point, he contracted tuberculosis, and, as a result, spent some time in a hospital in Switzerland in 1948.  The following poem is about that hospital stay.

               William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "The Conservatory Window"

               In a Foreign Hospital

Valleys away in the August dark the thunder
roots and tramples: lightning sharply prints
for an instant trees, hills, chimneys on the night.
We lie here in our similar rooms with the white
furniture, with our bit of Death inside us
(nearer than that Death our whole life lies under);
the man in the next room with the low voice,
the brown-skinned boy, the child among its toys
and I and others.  Against my bedside light
a small green insect flings itself with a noise
tiny and regular, a 'tink; tink, tink'.

A Nun stands rustling by, saying good night,
hooded and starched and smiling with her kind
lifeless, religious eyes.  'Is there anything
you want?' -- 'Sister, why yes, so many things:'
England is somewhere far away to my right
and all Your letter promised; days behind
my left hand or my head (or a whole age)
are dearer names and easier beds than here.
But since tonight must lack for all of these
I am free to keep my watch with images,
a bare white room, the World, an insect's rage,
and if I am lucky, find some link, some link.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (1963).

The phrase "all Your letter promised" in line 17 may refer to his first wife Nora, who died of tuberculosis-related heart failure in June of 1947.  His lovely poem "At Courmayeur" (which I have previously posted) is based upon their planned holiday in the Alps that was foreclosed by her death.

                      William Ratcliffe, "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

No Escape, Part Eleven: "Back"

The theme of this "No Escape" series is:  "Wherever you go, there you are." This remark sounds like a bit of contemporary pop psychology.  However, it may have its origins in a remark by Socrates.  This surmise is not based upon systematic research, but upon a passage from Montaigne (which I have previously posted):

"Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . .  Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels.  'I should think not,' he said, 'he took himself along with him.'"

Michel de Montaigne, "Of Solitude," The Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) (Stanford University Press 1958).

             Charles Ginner, "Lancaster from Castle Hill Terrace" (c. 1947)

Yes, all roads do lead back to ourselves.  That being said, I know quite well the siren song of escape.  It goes something like this:  "I should not be withheld but that some day/Into their vastness I should steal away . . ." (Robert Frost, from "Into My Own.")


Where is that sought-for place
Which grants a brief release
From locked impossibilities?
Impossible to say,
No signposts point the way.

Its very terrain vague
(What mountainside?  What lake?)
It gives the senses nothing,
Nothing to carry back,
No souvenir, no photograph.

Towards its borders no train shrieks
(What meadowland?  What creeks?)
And no plane howls towards its heart.
It is yourself you hear
(What parks?  What gentle deer?).

Only desperation finds it,
Too desperate to blaze a trail.
It only lives by knowing lack.
The single sign that you were there is,
You know that you are back.

D. J. Enright, Unlawful Assembly (1968).

                                              Cedric Lockwood Morris
                     "From a Window at 45 Brook Street, London" (1926)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Leaning On A Cane"

A time arrives (imperceptibly, it would seem) when one begins to exhibit an increased interest in poems about mortality.  In due course, this interest may become more specific, more pressing.  Thus, for instance, the ability of a poet to look certain facts in the face -- with equanimity and without bravado -- may suddenly begin to strike a nerve (something between a welcome sense of recognition and an urge to flee).

When it comes to equanimity without bravado, the Chinese and Japanese poets seem to have this mortality business well in hand.  Whether this has something to do with Taoism and/or Buddhism, I am not competent to say. The following two poems by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) are, I think, fine examples of what I am trying to get at.

                                                C. H. H. Burleigh
      "The Burleigh Family Taking Tea At Wilbury Crescent, Hove" (1947)

                  Up After Illness

Old and sick here in spring mountains,
but the warm sun's just right for a skinny body.
I sweep the bedroom, put the bedding out to air,
peer into the garden, leaning on a cane.
Birds scold, as though resenting visitors;
blossoms are late -- it seems they've waited for me.
Trust to truth when you view the ten thousand phenomena
and heaven and earth become one bottle gourd.

Ishikawa Jozan, in Burton Watson (editor/translator), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

               Osmund Caine (1914-2004), "Washing at No. 25, Kingston"

       Leaning on a Cane, Singing

Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky --
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.

Ibid.  According to tradition, this was Ishikawa Jozan's final poem.

                                   Gilbert Spencer, "The Terrace" (1927)

Friday, July 13, 2012

On A Boat At Night, Revisited

During the Edo Period (1603-1867) in Japan, a tradition developed of writing poems in Chinese.  These poems in Chinese by Japanese writers are known as kanshi.  According to Burton Watson, "the writing of such verse came to be an important mark of the educated man, much as the writing of Latin verse was for English gentlemen of the same centuries." Burton Watson (editor/translator), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and other Edo Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page x.

In addition to complying with the technical requirements of Chinese verse (e.g., number of lines, number of Chinese characters per line, rhyme, and tonal parallelism), the Japanese poets also echoed the subject matter of the Chinese poets.  As I noted in a previous post, poems written while travelling by boat were a staple of T'ang Dynasty poetry.  Thus, it is not surprising to see similar poems among the kanshi written by Japanese poets.

                        Kenneth Macqueen (1897-1960), "Beach Patterns"

The following poem is by Okubo Shibutsu (1767-1837).  The translation is by Burton Watson.

                    Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ibid, page 92.

          Kenneth Macqueen, "Receding Tide Near Coolum, Queensland"

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) is perhaps the most well-known kanshi poet (along with Ryokan, whose poems have appeared here in the past).  The following poem by him sounds strikingly similar to many Chinese poems of the T'ang Dynasty.  It also exemplifies, I think, the distinctive qualities of classic Chinese poetry.

On the one hand, it may be nothing more than a lovely, yet commonplace, observation of a passing moment.  But, then again, it may hold within it untold depths.  However, it is critical to note that those depths -- if they are there -- have nothing to do with Western concepts such as "symbolism," "metaphor," "allegory," et cetera.  Any depth is solely in the thing itself, in the moment itself.  But, to bring the circle back around, perhaps there is no depth at all: it is nothing more than a lovely, yet commonplace, observation of a passing moment.  And yet . . .

          Spending the Night at Murotsu

Numberless sails voyaging west and east --
with evening they'll be scrambling to enter this one inlet.
Ahead of us the waves of eighteen choppy seas;
we'll tie up the boat here, wait for a favorable wind.

Ibid, page 10.  Murotsu is a port town on the island of Awaji, which lies in Japan's Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku.

                                    Kenneth Macqueen, "Wave Sketch"

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I have decided that I am going to ignore this year's presidential election in the United States.  I hasten to add that this is not intended to be some sort of grandiose political/philosophical/cultural statement on, say, the status of republican democracy.  I am not raising a white flag at the thought of enduring four more months of media mendacity.  Nor am I throwing in the towel at the horrific prospect of watching a series of mind-numbing, soul-destroying (my mind and my soul) debates between the candidates.

No, the rationale for this dereliction of civic duty is very simple:  noise reduction.  We live in a time when noise -- whether it is absorbed through the ears or through the eyes -- assails us from all sides.  We dwell in a Bedlam which consists, not of the cries of the mad in a dark Victorian asylum, but of a never-ending airport concourse in which CNN blares from television monitors 24 hours a day.  Have you ever tried to escape from that sound?  Why add to the cacophony?  The choice, after all, is ours.

             Anne Isabella Brooke, "Near Masham, Wensleydale" (1954)

               Latterday Oracles: Noise

Listen to me and you will not need to listen
To your own voice thin as a shred of paper uncurling,
Your laughter empty and brittle as an eggshell:
Your thoughts thrown back in your teeth by the cynical wind.

You will not hear the diffidence of breath,
The importunacy of blood, denying death,
The pulse's halt and start,
The morse code of the heart,
Or your two hands whispering together, unquiet as air-stirred leaves.

Listen to me and you will not need to listen.
I am your rampart against silence, time,
And all the gods with empty arms, and eyes
Cold as mirrors, cold and white with questions.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2010).

      Anne Isabella Brooke, "Wharfedale From Above Bolton Abbey" (1954)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Seven: Dreams

What would we do without our dreams?  Waking or sleeping, they are always with us.  Of course, there is a school of thought (sometimes espoused by the Chinese and Japanese Taoist and Buddhist poets) that life itself is nothing but a dream.  Consider Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream:  did Chuang Tzu dream that he was a butterfly?  Or did the butterfly dream that it was Chuang Tzu?  Or, for instance, this:

The vicissitudes of this world are like the movements of the clouds.
Fifty years of life are nothing but one long dream.
Sparse rain:  in my desolate hermitage at night,
Quietly I clutch my robe and lean against the empty window.

Ryokan (translated by John Stevens), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

                       Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)

Perhaps one definition of a human being is "the creature that dreams."  But, in our current "civilization" -- in particular, its political and entertainment and "social science" worlds -- the dreams that are being peddled are at once shallow and frightening.  Although we cannot stop dreaming, we should beware of dreaming dreams that are not our own.


The farmers are walking about
in their soggy fields.  Inside their heads
a pleasant sun shines on crops without weeds.

In a house across the road a young man
plays a piano, aware of Bach and Bartok
listening indulgently to his blundering counterpoint.

And the dog asleep in a doorway twitches
his forepaws.  He's chasing
the fattest hare in Midlothian.

Dreams fly everywhere.  They creep
into minds whose owners have slammed them shut.
That boy's lungs are full of them.

Sometimes they come true and the world stares
at a new great painting or a body by the wayside
with chopped off hands.

The dreams of sleep dissolve when the window whitens
and the dreams of daylight swarm in with a passport to heaven
in one hand and a passport to hell in the other.

And sweet berries grow over the graves
of all of us or a white stone marks the place
which is the end of dreams, and of hell, and of heaven.

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

                           Lucien Pissarro, "High View, Fishpond" (1915)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"The Sun, That Brave Man"

The place in which I live -- what we in the United States call "the Pacific Northwest" -- has a reputation for dampness and greyness.  This reputation is somewhat exaggerated.  Still, when the sun appears, especially for extended periods of time, we locals are wont to go into a fit of (as they say about the financial markets) irrational exuberance.

We now find ourselves in the midst of a week-long stretch of bright blue, mid-70s to low-80s weather.  Sailboats dance out on a glittering Puget Sound (deep azure, of course).  To the west, the white peaks of the Olympics gleam in the sun.  The fields are green.  Eagles soar above the shoreline bluffs.

We walk out into the light, blinking our eyes in disbelief.  To quote John Cheever:  "Oh what a paradise it seems."

                                        Norman Rowe, "Span" (1985)

        The Brave Man

The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.

Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
Run away.

The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Run away.

Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
Run away.

That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

                             Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)

In a similar vein,  I recommend Philip Larkin's "Solar" ("suspended lion face"), as well as Charles Madge's "Solar Creation" ("the sun, of whose terrain we creatures are"), both of which have appeared here previously.

                                    Norman Rowe, "Water Lilies" (1979)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Outlived By Trees"

The idea of trees as revenants (of a sort) in Patrick Kavanagh's "Poplar Memory" (which appeared in my previous post) brings to mind a poem by Siegfried Sassoon.

            Outlived by Trees

A beech, a cedar, and a lime
Grow on my lawn, embodying time.
A lime, a cedar, and a beech
The transience of this lifetime teach.

Beech, cedar, lime, when I'm dead Me,
You'll stand, lawn-shadowing, tree by tree;
And in your greenery, while you last,
I shall survive who shared your past.

Siegfried Sassoon, Rhymed Ruminations (1940).

               Frank Ormond (1897-1988), "Moonrise, Stanford Dingley"

I presume that the beech, cedar, and lime were located on the grounds of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, where Sassoon lived from 1934 until his death in 1967.  Sassoon's trees reappear in a poem that he wrote a decade later.  This time, however, the prospect of their survival -- and of the survival of part of him through them -- seems less certain.

                    A Proprietor

A meditative man
Walks in this wood, and calls each tree his own:
Yet the green track he treads is older than
Recorded English history:
His feet, while moving on towards times unknown,
Travel from traceless mystery.
Wondering what manner of men
Will walk there in the problem'd future when
Those trees he planted are long fallen or felled,
He twirls a white wild violet in his fingers
As others may when he's no more beheld,
Nor memory of him lingers.

Siegfried Sassoon, Emblems of Experience (1951).

We will always have a "problem'd future" ahead of us, won't we?  All the more reason to concentrate on the trees rather than the forest.

                                 Paul Nash, "The Orchard" (c. 1914-1917)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Poplar Memory"

My previous two posts considered the possibility that our souls may leave remnants behind when our stay here comes to an end.  I should have noted at the outset of this excursion that, in bringing up this subject, I am not attempting to be profound or metaphysical or anything of that sort.

As is always the case, I am merely idly ruminating.  This detour was occasioned by a small poem by Mary Coleridge, not by a weighty contemplation upon Our Place In The Universe.  There shall be no ontology here.

In the interest of further idle rumination, the following poem by Patrick Kavanagh is, I think, a lovely instance of how we may leave something of our soul behind.

                                     David Jones, "The Storm Tree" (1948)

                    Poplar Memory

I walked under the autumned poplars that my father planted
On a day in April when I was a child
Running beside the heap of suckers
From which he picked the straightest, most promising.

My father dreamt forests, he is dead --
And there are poplar forests in the waste-places
And on the banks of drains.

When I look up
I see my father
Peering through the branched sky.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (Penguin/Allen Lane 2004).

         David Jones, "The View from Gatwick House, Essex, April" (1946)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Aeons Hence"

The following poem by James Reeves provides a modest (yet hopeful) view of what a soul may leave behind after its stay here.  We each dwell on our own "unregarded island," one that is both earthy and imaginative.  Yes, yes, I know:  "No man is an island, entire of itself," according to John Donne.  But, then again, each of us dies alone.  Take your pick.

                               Richard Eurich, "Bottle on a Beach" (1976)

                 Aeons Hence

When, aeons hence, they rediscover
The unregarded island I inhabit,
Will they not marvel
How life upon so bare a soil withstood
This testy climate and abrasive sea?

And when by excavation
My relics are exposed, my habits known,
How, perching on a ledge out of the wind,
I scraped a living, will they not admit
They've lost the secret of some things I did,
As making good pots from this gritty clay
And music from a certain kind of shells?

James Reeves, Subsong (1969).

It doesn't sound half-bad, really, "perching on a ledge out of the wind." Like Alexander Selkirk, but with more comforts.  And the thought of leaving certain things behind, while taking certain secrets with you, is worth considering as well.

                          Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)