Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Summer Is Ended"

I have long felt that autumn properly begins -- as an emotional, sensual, and aesthetic matter -- in late August.  Yes, I am aware of the autumnal equinox and of the tilting paths of heavenly bodies, et cetera.  That is all well and good.

But there is something about late August that bespeaks autumn:  the yellow and angled light; a sky that seems a deeper blue at the edge of a solitary cloud; a rivulet of coolness thridding its way through the otherwise warm afternoon breeze . . .

        George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

               "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
            Scentless, colourless, this!
     Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
                 Thus with our bliss,
         If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
            Sooner, later, at last,
     Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
                 An end locked fast,
         Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

Rossetti placed the title of the poem in quotation marks because it has its source in the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 8, Verse 20 (King James Version): "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (notes by Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001), page 960.

                             Ford Madox Brown, "Carrying Corn" (1854)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Nine: "Where Lies The Land To Which The Ship Would Go?"

The image of life as a sea voyage -- pleasurable or painful, paradisal or hellish, aimless or purposeful -- has its origins in antiquity.  As one might expect, Explanations of Life abound.

Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) was a friend of Matthew Arnold's. Hence, he would have been familiar with the somewhat bleak sea-vision presented by Arnold in "To Marguerite -- Continued":  "Yes! in the sea of life enisled . . . We mortal millions live alone."  In the following untitled poem, Clough offers a sea-vision that may not be as bleak as Arnold's -- at least, for example, there is a prospect of companionship.  The only catch is that the voyage appears to lack a destination (or a port of embarkation, for that matter).

                                         Emily Carr, "Seascape" (c. 1935)

Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.
And where the land she travels from?  Away,
Far, far behind, is all that they can say.

On sunny noons upon the deck's smooth face,
Linked arm in arm, how pleasant here to pace!
Or, o'er the stern reclining, watch below
The foaming wake far widening as we go.

On stormy nights when wild north-westers rave,
How proud a thing to fight with wind and wave!
The dripping sailor on the reeling mast
Exults to bear, and scorns to wish it past.

Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.
And where the land she travels from?  Away,
Far, far behind, is all that they can say.

Arthur Hugh Clough, Poems (1879).

Of course, some would say that a destination is beside the point.  For instance, C. P. Cavafy in "Ithaka":

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery. . . .

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems: Revised Edition (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

                                          Emily Carr, "Sky" (1935-1936)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Looking For Something, Something, Something"

In "Sea-Marge" (which appeared in my previous post) Ivor Gurney writes of ". . . the lacy edge/of the swift sea.//Which patterns and with glorious music the/Sands and round stones -- It talks ever/Of new patterns." Gurney's images bring to mind Elizabeth Bishop's "Sandpiper."

Although I have posted "Sandpiper" here in the past, I am not averse, as I have mentioned before, to circling back from time and time.  When it comes to poems, one thing always seems to lead (delightfully -- and often unexpectedly) to another, doesn't it?

                                William Baziotes, "Water Forms" (1961)

Tim Kendall, in his wonderful new book The Art of Robert Frost (which I highly recommend!), directs our attention to this phenomenon in the well-chosen epigraph to his book:

"A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written.  We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A).  We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A.  Progress is not the aim, but circulation.  The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do."

Tim Kendall, The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), page v, quoting Robert Frost, "The Prerequisites" (1954).

The entire passage is marvelous, but I particularly like this:  "Progress is not the aim, but circulation."  (Although "where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do" is hard to beat.)

Frost's "circulation" in turn reminds me of a poem by Wallace Stevens: "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating."  Here is the first stanza:

The garden flew round with the angel,
The angel flew round with the clouds,
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

                                    William Baziotes, "White Bird" (1957)


The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat.  On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

-- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards.  As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist.  And then the world is
minute and vast and clear.  The tide
is higher or lower.  He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel (1965).

As I have noted previously, Bishop's description (in line 4) of the sandpiper as "a student of Blake" has its source in William Blake's line from "Auguries of Innocence":  "To see a World in a Grain of Sand."

                                William Baziotes, "Sea Phantoms" (1952)

Friday, August 24, 2012


Matthew Arnold's use of the word "marges" in "To Marguerite -- Continued" ("O might our marges meet again!") reminded me of a lovely poem by Ivor Gurney.  The poem shows Gurney in one of his more straightforward moods (in terms of syntax, at least).


Pebbles are beneath, but we stand softly
On them, as on sand, and watch the lacy edge
of the swift sea.

Which patterns and with glorious music the
Sands and round stones -- It talks ever
Of new patterns.

And by the cliff-edge, there, the oakwood throws
A shadow deeper to watch what new thing
Happens at the marge.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

            Philip Leslie Moffat Ward (1888-1978), "Chesil Beach, Winter"

"To watch what new thing/Happens at the marge" is perhaps a good way to think of how Gurney lived his life (by choice and by sad circumstance).

I have never quite understood what Gurney means by "the oakwood throws/A shadow deeper to watch what new thing/Happens at the marge." I am likely off the mark, but I sometimes think that lines 5 and 6 of the following poem may be obliquely helpful.  There are sun-made shadows and there are moon-and-star-made shadows.  And there are other kinds of shadows as well.  Which sort Gurney means, I cannot say.  To stand in those shadows (of whatever sort) and look out over (and into) the bright world can sometimes give one a sharper view.  The world might even seem, say, pellucid.

But that is enough of that.


Only the wanderer
     Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
     Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
     That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
     O Severn meadows.


         Philip Leslie Moffat Ward, "Near Worbarrow Bay, Dorset" (1930)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Yes! In The Sea Of Life Enisled"

By chance, my posts this month have taken a turn towards the sea.  Which leads me to Matthew Arnold.  The sea turns up quite a bit in his poetry, even though one might not think of Arnold as a margins-of-the-land, vasty-deep type of person.  (As opposed to, say, Thomas Hardy, who is quite at home standing on the brink of a windy cliff above crashing waves   -- more often than not in rain, mist, or fog.)

Arnold's best-known poem is probably "Dover Beach," which begins:  "The sea is calm to-night./The tide is full, the moon lies fair/Upon the straits." The poem then proceeds onward to the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of "the Sea of Faith," before ending on the famous "darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night."

                                Edward Wadsworth, "Gasteropoda" (1927)

But the sea is present in a number of other poems of his as well, including the following poem addressed to "Marguerite."  Arnold first met "Marguerite" in September of 1848 on a sojourn in Switzerland, saw her again when he returned a year later, and then parted from her for ever.  Her identity is unknown (despite the detective work of scholars).  Some argue that she was an invention.  I prefer to think not.

       To Marguerite -- Continued

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour --

Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain --
Oh might our marges meet again!

Who ordered, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire? --
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

If one were being less than charitable to Arnold, one could argue that the poem is Arnold's after-the-fact philosophical/ontological/theological rationalization for failing to pursue the love of his life.  I can see the point. Sort of.

But then there is line 4:  "We mortal millions live alone."  Call me sappy and sentimental, but those italics speak volumes.

Well, what does one do with a life-long regret?

                                  Edward Wadsworth, "Still Life" (c. 1926)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Perspective, Part Two: An Entire Range, A Single Peak

I wonder:  is it possible to view oneself (or, "one's self") objectively?  I think not.  There is an inherent and inescapable conflict of interest, isn't there?  I suspect that such objectivity is attainable only by the holy (in a mystical, non-sectarian sense) or the mad.  (Perhaps "and/or" rather than "or" is more appropriate in such a case.)

It is somewhat akin to trying to imagine yourself dead.

                 F. H. Glasbury, "Sunshine and Shadow in Epping Forest"

   Written on the Wall at Xilin Temple

Regarded from one side, an entire range;
     from another, a single peak.
Far, near, high, low, all its parts
     different from the others.
If the true face of Mount Lu
     cannot be known,
It is because the one looking at it
     is standing in its midst.

Su Tung-P'o (Su Shih) (1037-1101), in Beata Grant (translator), Mount Lu Revisited: Buddhism in the Life and Writings of Su Shih (University of Hawaii Press 1994).

                        Tom Gentleman, "Balfron, the Field Bridge" (1922)


One's "sense of self" is a curious thing:
Compare the slights you think you have suffered
With those you have visited upon others.
Ah!  then a sudden wind rattles the doors --
As if the world had a life of its own.

sip (March 2011).

                       Ethelbert White, "Sun Through the Wood" (c. 1932)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Crossing The Bar"

Charles Kingsley's "The Three Fishers" (which appeared in my previous post) revolves around the image (and sound) of the "moaning" of "the harbour bar."  According to Christopher Ricks, who has edited Alfred Tennyson's poetry, Tennyson owned a copy of Kingsley's Andromeda and Other Poems (1858), in which "The Three Fishers" appeared.  Christopher Ricks (editor), Tennyson: A Selected Edition (1989), page 665.  Further, Tennyson's wife Emily noted in her journal that he read some of Kingsley's poems to her in 1858.  Ibid.

Tennyson wrote "Crossing the Bar" in October of 1889 when crossing the Solent to the Isle of Wight.  Although the poem was prompted by that journey, Kingsley's "Though the harbour bar be moaning" may have been hovering somewhere in the back of his mind as well.

              Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "Silver Estuary" (c. 1925)

            Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
     And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
     When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
     Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
     Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
     And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
     When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
     The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
     When I have crost the bar.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (1889).

Commentators on the poem usually link "bourne" in line 13 to Hamlet's description of death as "the undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns."  Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, 79-80. Coincidentally, Christina Rossetti wrote a poem titled "The Bourne," which I have previously posted here.  The poem was published in 1866, but I am not suggesting that it influenced Tennyson, merely noting another use of the word in Victorian poetry.

Commentators also suggest that "face to face" in line 15 may be an allusion to 1 Corinthians 13.12:  "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face."

                                  Christopher Nevinson, "Saint-Malo"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Three Fishers Went Sailing Away To The West . . ."

The best-known poem about "fisher-folk" in the Victorian era was probably "The Three Fishers" by Charles Kingsley.  This is most likely due to the fact that it was set to music soon after it was published, and became a popular song.  Versions of it are still sung today.

                                 Richard Eurich, "Fawley Beach" (1939)

                    The Three Fishers

Three fishers went sailing away to the West,
     Away to the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who loved him the best,
     And the children stood watching them out of the town;
     For men must work, and women must weep,
     And there's little to earn, and many to keep,
               Though the harbour bar be moaning.

Three wives sat up in the lighthouse tower,
     And they trimmed the lamps as the sun went down;
They looked at the squall, and they looked at the shower,
     And the night-rack came rolling up ragged and brown.
     But men must work, and women must weep,
     Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
               And the harbour bar be moaning.

Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
     In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
     For those who will never come home to the town;
     For men must work, and women must weep,
     And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep;
               And good-bye to the bar and its moaning.

Charles Kingsley, Andromeda and Other Poems (1858).

                                         Seattle Fishermen's Memorial

The "moaning" of "the harbour bar" is explained by Kingsley Amis in a note to the poem:

"The late Philip Hope-Wallace told me that, in the common estuary of the rivers Taw and Torridge in Barnstaple (or Bideford) Bay, the joining of their waters and the incoming sea can between them, if conditions are just right, produce a loud moaning sound above the sand-bar at the mouth of the inlet.  Kingsley had lived in that part of north Devon and was no doubt referring to a local superstition."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (Hutchinson 1988), pages 328-329.  The "superstition" of which Amis writes is the belief that, if the bar is moaning, it is betokening the coming death of those who cross it.

                                            Photograph by J. Clark

Lest we think that the poems that I have recently posted by Charles Kingsley, Christina Rossetti, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson are quaint relics of a by-gone era, I have included images of the Seattle Fishermen's Memorial with this post.

The Memorial is located at the Fishermen's Terminal, which is about two miles from where I live.  Flowers may usually be found at the Memorial, together with personal items that have been left by the family and friends of those whose names appear on the engraved plaques that are to the left and right of the statue.

                                  Metal sculpture at the base of the statue

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"The Soonest Mended, Nothing Said"

"Least said, soonest mended" is a proverb that I had not heard of until I came across the following poem by Christina Rossetti.  One of the earliest versions of the proverb appeared in John Heywood's Three Hundred Epigrams Upon Three Hundred Proverbs in 1562:  "little said, soon amended."  Rossetti's version appears in the first line of her poem.

Given the subject matter of the poem, "mending" (as in the mending of fishing nets) gives the proverb an added resonance.  Further, Rossetti's use of "nothing said" (rather than "least said" or "little said") establishes a theme of silence that works its way gracefully (and movingly) through the entire poem.

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

               A Fisher-Wife

The soonest mended, nothing said;
     And help may rise from east or west;
But my two hands are lumps of lead,
     My heart sits leaden in my breast.

O north wind swoop not from the north,
     O south wind linger in the south,
Oh come not raving raging forth,
     To bring my heart into my mouth;

For I've a husband out at sea,
     Afloat on feeble planks of wood;
He does not know what fear may be;
     I would have told him if I could.

I would have locked him in my arms,
     I would have hid him in my heart;
For oh! the waves are fraught with harms,
     And he and I so far apart.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

           Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Fishing Boats, Mevagissey" (1954)

Sunday, August 12, 2012


The first stanza of Ernest Dowson's "In a Breton Cemetery," which comments upon the harsh life of Breton "fisher-folk," puts me in mind of a poem by Arthur Symons, Dowson's fellow Nineties poet.  Symons's best-known poems are set in the usual urban Decadent haunts: London, Paris, Venice, et cetera.  But Symons also spent a fair amount of time in out-of-the-way seaside towns in England, Wales, and Ireland, and these places find their way into a number of his poems.  (With the requisite twilit, grey-tinted melancholia and world-weariness of the Decadents still intact, of course.)

                            Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

          The Fisher's Widow

The boats go out and the boats come in
Under the wintry sky;
And the rain and foam are white in the wind,
And the white gulls cry.

She sees the sea when the wind is wild
Swept by the windy rain;
And her heart's a-weary of sea and land
As the long days wane.

She sees the torn sails fly in the foam,
Broad on the skyline grey;
And the boats go out and the boats come in,
But there's one away.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (1889).

                                        Richard Eurich, "P.Z. 576" (1974)

I like the recurrence of "the boats go out and the boats come in":  as with the movement of the tide.  The alliteration throughout the poem seems to embody the sound and the motion of the sea as well:  "wintry sky;/ . . . white in the wind,/And the white gulls cry."  And:  "She sees the sea when the wind is wild/Swept by the windy rain."  

I wonder about line 8: "As the long days wane."  The source would seem to be Tennyson's well-known lines in "Ulysses":  "The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep/Moans round with many voices."  Symons, like most Victorian poets, was brought up on Tennyson's verse.  Was this a conscious or an unconscious borrowing?  I suspect that it was done in homage to Tennyson, but that is just a guess.

                                   Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Breton Dream

I have never been to Brittany, but I have an idealized, romanticized, late-19th century vision of it.  This vision is centered upon Pont-Aven, where Paul Gauguin, Paul Serusier, and other French artists lived and painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s.  This Breton world is a green world.

Then, to top it off, comes an ill and impoverished Ernest Dowson, the Decadent poet par excellence.  Dowson stayed in Pont-Aven in the late 1890s, writing despairing poetry and despairing letters.  Green still predominates.

I realize, of course, that the vision that I have conjured up has nothing in common with present-day reality, but I am content with that.

                            Paul Gauguin, "Haymaking in Brittany" (1888)

          In a Breton Cemetery

They sleep well here,
     These fisher-folk who passed their anxious days
     In fierce Atlantic ways;
And found not there,
     Beneath the long curled wave,
     So quiet a grave.

And they sleep well
     These peasant-folk, who told their lives away,
     From day to market-day,
As one should tell,
     With patient industry,
     Some sad old rosary.

And now night falls,
     Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
     A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
     And dear dead people with pale hands
     Beckon me to their lands.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations: In Verse and Prose (1899).  A note: "told" in line 8 and "tell" in line 10 are used in the sense of "to count" or "to reckon."

              Paul Serusier, "Breton Woman by a Field of Wheat" (c. 1890)

Dowson's poem is reminiscent of at least two poems by Christina Rossetti on the theme of death as sleep: "Life and Death" ("Life is not sweet.  One day it will be sweet/To shut our eyes and die . . . Asleep from risk, asleep from pain"), and this:

                     Sleeping at Last

Sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over,
     Sleeping at last, the struggle and horror past,
Cold and white, out of sight of friend and of lover,
          Sleeping at last.

     No more a tired heart downcast or overcast,
No more pangs that wring or shifting fears that hover,
     Sleeping at last in a dreamless sleep locked fast.

Fast asleep.  Singing birds in their leafy cover
     Cannot wake her, nor shake her the gusty blast.
Under the purple thyme and the purple clover
          Sleeping at last.

Christina Rossetti, New Poems, Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected (edited by William Michael Rossetti) (1896).

                               Paul Gauguin, "Flutist on the Cliffs" (1889)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Far Away Is The Land Of Rest"

In my last two posts, I have spent some time (too much, no doubt) on the subject of whether the term "melancholy" appropriately describes Christina Rossetti's poetry.  Well, then, what are we to make of the poetry of Emily Bronte?  I confess that I am a stranger to the fiction of the Bronte sisters, but I am fond of Emily Bronte's poetry.  Given the literary and cinematic freight that this ill-fated family now carries with it -- empty (except for two lovers), dark, windswept moors -- "melancholy" is a word that inescapably springs to mind in connection with anything written by the trio.

Still, one comes up against the usual choice (which has been noted here on more than one occasion):  one person's "melancholia" or "pessimism" is another person's "realism" or "truth."  Consider, for instance, the following untitled poem by Emily Bronte.

                        Isaac Cooke (1846-1922), "The Crater of Snowdon"

Far away is the land of rest
Thousand miles are stretched between
Many a mountain's stormy crest
Many a desert void of green

Wasted worn is the traveller
Dark his heart and dim his eye
Without hope or comforter
Faltering faint and ready to die

Often he looks to the ruthless sky
Often he looks o'er his dreary road
Often he wishes down to lie
And render up life's tiresome load

But yet faint not mournful man
Leagues on leagues are left behind
Since your sunless course began
Then go on to toil resigned

If you still despair control
Hush its whispers in your breast
You shall reach the final goal
You shall win the land of rest

Emily Bronte, The Complete Poems (edited by Janet Gezari) (Penguin 1992).  (The poem was in manuscript form at the time of Bronte's death. This accounts for the lack of punctuation.  It was first published in 1910.)

             Isaac Cooke, "Showers on the Way to Goat's Water, Coniston"

Well, that may be melancholy.  Bronte wrote the poem in October of 1837. Christina Rossetti wrote the following poem in June of 1858.  She could not have known of Bronte's poem since, as noted above, it was not published until 1910.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
     Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
     From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
     A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
     You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
     Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
     They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
     Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
     Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

               Isaac Cooke, "Showers Over Low Water, Old Man, Coniston"

Monday, August 6, 2012


In my previous post, I stated that Christina Rossetti "is often thought of as a melancholy poet."  After further thought, I wish to offer an addendum to that statement.  I think that it is dangerous to make generalizations about a poet.  I do not find Rossetti's poetry to be "melancholy."  And I do not intend to frighten anyone off from her poetry with the suggestion that all is gloom.

As I said, longing and loss and resignation are not uncommon in her poetry, but -- as is the case with all good poetry -- the bare subject matter is transformed into something else when the right words come together, something that is far from "melancholy."  At this point, I am tempted to go off on a verbal and philosophical flight and quote Keats:  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  I'll stay away from that, but something in that neighborhood does happen in a fine poem.


Remember me when I am gone away,
     Gone far away into the silent land;
     When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
     You tell me of our future that you planned:
     Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
     And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
     For if the darkness and corruption leave
     A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
     Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

          Kenneth Roberts (1932-1995), "Benvie, Gray and Gourdie" (1988)

In a note to the poem (Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, page 892), Betty Flowers suggests that it may have some affinities with Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXI:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
     Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
     And mock you with me after I am gone.

                                    Kenneth Roberts, "Souvenir of Istria"

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"On Sometime Summer's Unreturning Track"

I'd like to stay with the theme of "evening" a moment longer in order to consider a poem by Christina Rossetti.  Rossetti is often thought of as a melancholy poet.  Indeed, longing, loss, and resignation do make fairly frequent appearances in her poems.

Yet -- and this may be a sign of some sort of pathology on my part -- reading her poetry never fails to cheer me up.  The same thing happens when I read Philip Larkin, another poet who has a reputation (deserved or not) for glumness.  (Larkin, by the way, was a great admirer of Rossetti's poetry.)

Something that John Bayley wrote is perhaps pertinent: "happiness is not common in good poetry, nor of much value to it."  John Bayley, "Spruce" (review of A. E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose), London Review of Books (June 2, 1988). 

Here is Rossetti's and Larkin's secret:  their poetry is lovely.  I realize that "lovely" is not exactly a rigorous critical assessment, but it is the best that I can do.

                                                John William Inchbold
                                          "A Study, in March" (c. 1855)

             From Sunset to Star Rise

Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
     I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
     A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
     Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
     Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot.
For I have hedged me with a thorny hedge,
     I live alone, I look to die alone:
Yet sometimes when a wind sighs through the sedge
     Ghosts of my buried years and friends come back,
My heart goes sighing after swallows flown
     On sometime summer's unreturning track.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).

So, where lies the beauty that dispels the gloom?  I'd say exactly here:  "On sometime summer's unreturning track."

                   John William Inchbold, "Anstey's Cove, Devon" (1854)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Breathe On Me Still, Star, Sister"

Rainer Maria Rilke's "Evening" (which appeared in my previous post) closes by referring to one's life as

. . . the fearful and ripening and enormous
Being that -- bounded by everything, or boundless --
For a moment becomes stone, for a moment stars.

The translation of those lines is by Randall Jarrell.  The juxtaposition of stone and stars puts me in mind of a poem by Jarrell that appears in the same collection in which his translation of "Evening" appears.

                                 Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Large Flints" (1963)

                  The Meteorite

Star, that looked so long among the stones
And picked from them, half iron and half dirt,
One; and bent and put it to her lips
And breathed upon it till at last it burned
Uncertainly, among the stars its sisters --
Breathe on me still, star, sister.

Randall Jarrell, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960).

                                     Eliot Hodgkin, "Four Flints" (1939)

I never felt that I understood this poem, and then I came upon a passage in a memoir of Jarrell written by Mary von Schrader Jarrell, his second wife. Soon after they first met, she and Jarrell were out for a walk along a dry stream bed in Colorado, where she found an unusual-looking stone.  She suggested jokingly to Jarrell that it was a meteorite.  Jarrell later wrote "The Meteorite":  he is the meteorite; she is the star.  Mary von Schrader Jarrell, Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell (1999), pages 9-10.

The anecdote provides a good lesson:  poems often have their origins in prosaic circumstances.  I am reminded of Wallace Stevens's explanation of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts," that lovely and enigmatic poem:  at the time that he wrote it, he was worried about a rabbit that was visiting his garden each morning and eating the flower bulbs.

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