Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"In A Lifetime How Many Springs Do We See?"

I do not think that we ought to dwell unduly upon our mortality.  Unlike, say, the Elizabethans, I have no desire to place a skull on my mantelpiece as a reminder of where I am bound.  And I certainly do not wish to follow the example of John Donne, who is reputed to have occasionally slept in his coffin (which he kept inside his house).  Enough is enough.

Still, being mindful of the brevity of our days is, I think, a good idea.  If nothing else, it may help us to appreciate the moments as they fly away. Besides, in doing so, we keep ourselves in good company:  Su Tung-p'o and A. E. Housman, for instance.

Stanley Spencer, "Lilac and Clematis at Englefield" (1954)

       Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green --
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering --
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994).

"In a lifetime how many springs do we see?"  For some of us, the question is not an idle one.  To wit:  at a certain age, the number of springs that we have already seen without a doubt exceeds the number of springs that we have yet to see.  Simple arithmetic, I'm afraid.  But this is not a cause for despair. However, to borrow from Samuel Johnson, it does serve to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Stanley Spencer
"Wisteria at Englefield" (1955)

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

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

A side-note:  on the poetic comparison of snow and blossoms ("snowy boughs by the eastern palisade;" "to see the cherry hung with snow"), please see my previous post on W. H. Davies's "Nailsworth Hill" and Po Chu-i's "Village Night" ("buckwheat blossoms are like snow").

Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)


John Ashton said...

Ah, Mr Pentz it does'nt matter how familiar it seems at first glance and how many times I've read it, the Housman is simply wonderful.
I do like " Pear blossoms by the Eastern palisade too",one I'm not familiar with.
Davies's Nailsworth Hill too, a reminder that I must open my copy of a somewhat neglected volume soon.
I've been away on short break in north Norfolk for the past ten days; enjoying the peace of the countryside and the Norfolk coast and its saltmarshes. Glad to return to such delightful poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: as always, it is a pleasure to hear from you.

I hope that you enjoyed your trip to Norfolk. I have never been to that part of England, but I hope to visit Norfolk and other parts of East Anglia at some point.

I have also neglected Davies's poetry in recent years, but it deserves a visit.

Thank you for stopping by.