Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The Woodspurge Has A Cup Of Three"

I have commented previously upon two aspects of memory.  First, of all the hours that we have lived, only a small number of seemingly commonplace or nondescript moments lodge themselves in our brains, and remain subject to recall with great sensory and emotional clarity.  Of course, this means that these moments are not "commonplace" or "nondescript" at all. They leave a thread to be followed.

Second, when it comes to these exceptional moments, there are a few details that stand out from everything else.  These details no doubt caused the moment to burrow into our memory in the first place.  Again, they may seem commonplace or nondescript:  a cast of light, a sward of green, a path above the sea . . .

William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep)" (1852)

               The Woodspurge

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will, --
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was, --
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me, --
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (1887).

The crystal-clear, evocative quality of the woodspurge is reminiscent of "the crushed bracken and the wings/Of doves among dim branches" in Patrick MacDonogh's "Revaluation."


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

William Holman Hunt
"The Festival of St Swithin (The Dovecot)" (1865)

Another poem by Rossetti seems apt.


Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (1887).

William Holman Hunt, "The Haunted Manor" (1849)


John Ashton said...

Life is filled with strange coincidences Mr Pentz, and when I read your post this evening it mirrored almost exactly the conversation my wife and I had yesterday evening. We had spent the afternoon with my almost two year old grandson, walking in local woodland, beside a small river and later sitting beside the river Thames. I asked my wife if she thought he would have any memories of the afternoon and the conversation led on to the curiosities of memory. How it is that we have astonishingly detailed memories of, as you say seemingly insignificant moments.
I have very detailed memories of some of my childhood,and yet other moments; first day at school,last day at school etc Moments one might think would be remembered, I have none at at all!
I think the Patrick McDonogh poem beautifully captures the strangenesses of memory

Jeff said...

Thanks for this. Ironically, I have a fond and positive memory of "The Woodspurge"; I recall it being one of the first times I spoke up in class, because no one else wanted to venture a guess as to what Rossetti was getting it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you very much for those thoughts. That is a nice coincidence.

It is interesting that, although we may "remember" major life events such as births, marriages, and deaths, our clearest recollections are often of these small, seemingly random moments. There must have been something going on that causes them to come back now with such clarity.

I'm pleased that you liked "Revaluation." I agree: it captures very well what we are talking about.

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: it's very nice to hear from you.

Yes, that is an apt poetic touch: to remember clearly a moment in your life concerning a poem -- a poem that is about remembering a moment clearly. Poetry and life work that way at times, don't they?

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Anonymous said...

Not a coincidence, but a wonderful memory: the first painting brought back a late afternoon walk with my husband on the Isle of Skye, with just such golden light. He called out loudly to me, & the sheep set up a derisive baaing.
Susan from NYC

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I appreciate your sharing that lovely (and funny) memory. I have only been to Skye once (alas!) and I remember that golden light -- and every other kind of light, often in the space of a few hours, or even minutes -- very well. "Magical" is an overused word, but when I was there it was the only word that seemed to adequately describe the place. And I do recall that there was no shortage of sheep!

As always, thank you very much for visiting.