Thursday, February 6, 2014

At Sea

I've been put in a maritime mood by the seaside grave poems from The Greek Anthology that have appeared in my recent posts.  But the two poems I have in mind are neither funereal nor littoral: they take us out on to the deep with the living.

John Brett, "Falmouth Harbour, 13 July 1883" (1883)

First, an untitled poem by A. E. Housman:

There pass the careless people
     That call their souls their own:
Here by the road I loiter,
     How idle and alone.

Ah, past the plunge of plummet,
     In seas I cannot sound,
My heart and soul and senses,
     World without end, are drowned.

His folly has not fellow
     Beneath the blue of day
That gives to man or woman
     His heart and soul away.

There flowers no balm to sain him
     From east of earth to west
That's lost for everlasting
     The heart out of his breast.

Here by the labouring highway
     With empty hands I stroll:
Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,
     Lie lost my heart and soul.

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

"Plummet" (line 5) is "a piece of lead or other heavy material attached to a line, used for measuring the depth of water; a sounding lead."  OED.  (But the more commonly-used sense of "a rapid fall; an instance of plummeting rapidly" is perhaps invoked by implication.)  "Sain" (line 13) means "to bless . . . esp. in collocation with save" or "to secure by prayer or enchantment from evil influence."  Ibid.  These two senses derive from the primary meaning:  "to make the sign of the cross on (a thing or person) in token of consecration or blessing; or for the purpose of exorcizing a demon, warding off the evil influences of witches, poison, etc." Ibid.

I like the way Housman works his sea imagery into the poem without being too insistent about it.  But, at the end, he brings it to the fore beautifully: "Sea-deep . . . lie lost my heart and soul" is wonderful.

John Brett, "Christmas Morning, 1866" (1868)

I've never been able to figure out the following poem.  I'll attempt to excuse my thickheadedness by positing that it is a poem of evocative atmosphere, with no "plot" per se.  Which, come to think of it, may be exactly the point. At any rate, I do know this: it sounds good.


Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired.  Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.

Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me!  Such absences!

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press 1955).

Interestingly, Larkin chose "Absences" when he was asked to select a poem to be included in an anthology titled Poet's Choice (Dial Press 1962). Larkin, who was usually not given to explicating his own work, wrote this as an introduction to the poem:

"I suppose I like 'Absences' (a) because of its subject matter -- I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there; (b) because I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist.  I wish I could write like this more often.

Incidentally, an oceanographer wrote to me pointing out that I was confusing two kinds of wave, plunging waves and spilling waves, which seriously damaged the poem from a technical viewpoint.  I am sorry about this, but do not see how to amend it now."

Philip Larkin, "Poet's Choice," in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews 1952-85 (edited by Anthony Thwaite) (Faber and Faber 2001), page 17.

"I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there."  Part of me thinks that Larkin is pulling our leg.  But, then, think about it . . .

John Brett, "A North-West Gale off the Longships Lighthouse" (1873)


Janet said...

I think the Larkin poem also sounds like Beowulf eg. 'spray-haired'.

Stephen Pentz said...

Janet: thank you for visiting, and for your comment. I hadn't thought of that correspondence, but I see what you mean. Along the same lines, you've prompted me to think as well of The Seafarer in Old English, which has a similar feel.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

In a major part of the US, "plummet" is the mot du jour, as in "temperatures due to plummet again".
And then there's the Dow plummeting, not welcome either.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I hadn't thought of the word much, always assuming that the "rapid fall" meaning was all there was to it. But Housman's use of it puzzled me, so I thought I'd better look it up -- to see if I needed to learn something. And sure enough I did learn something.

As always, thank you for your thoughts. It still looks chilly where you are, but the "plummet" may have stopped!

Anonymous said...

Instead of going to the internet,I looked up "plummet" in our 65-year-old 3-vol. Webster's Second Edition dictionary. To my surprise, the major use shown was as a noun, which is how Housman uses it. The verb was secondary & only meant "to sound or fathom" [with a plummet line]. Nothing about falling rapidly.
Then there is the wonderful "plummetless", meaning unfathomable.
It is indeed good to look things up. Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: thanks for the follow-up comment. Yes, the OED is the same: "plummet" as a depth sounder is the first entry, followed much later by "rapid fall." I agree that this is a good lesson: I was feeling lazy, and almost didn't look it up, but I've learned a lot by having taken the time to dig further.

I agree that "plummetless" is wonderful. I appreciate your bringing it to my attention -- I'm going to try to work that into a post some day!

Thanks again.