Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"The Silent Friendship Of The Moon"

Today, I was tempted to go off on a tangent about the Crimean War.  You know:  the one that ended in 1856.  I might have found a way to work in Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  But a sudden weariness came over me.  Thus, let us instead consider the moon, which remains pretty much the same after 158 years:  still presiding over we humans, who remain pretty much the same after 158 years, with only a superficial outward change in appearances and appliances.

Which is no cause for concern, by the way.  What I worry about are the people who believe we have changed since 1856.  The moon knows otherwise.

Harald Sohlberg, "Moonlight, Nevlunghavn" (1922)

                       The Moon

There is such loneliness in that gold.
The moon of the nights is not the moon
Whom the first Adam saw.  The long centuries
Of human vigil have filled her
With ancient lament.  Look at her.  She is your mirror.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Willis Barnstone), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

I suppose that the poem violates John Ruskin's strictures about the use of the pathetic fallacy in poetry (although I'm not certain he was consistent in his thinking on the matter).  Personally, as much as I admire Ruskin, I don't see the pathetic fallacy as such a bad thing.  If Borges perceives the moon as being filled with "ancient lament," I don't see why not.  It makes perfect sense to me.

Winifred Nicholson, "The Hunter's Moon" (1955)

I am also quite willing to accept the silent friendship of the moon, even if she is filled with ancient lament.

                       The Limit

The silent friendship of the moon
(I misquote Virgil) has kept you company
since that one night or evening
now lost in time, when your restless
eyes first made her out for always
in a patio or a garden since gone to dust.
For always?  I know that someday someone
will find a way of telling you this truth:
"You'll never see the moon aglow again.
You've now attained the limit set for you
by destiny.  No use opening every window
throughout the world.  Too late.  You'll never find her."
Our life is spent discovering and forgetting
that gentle habit of the night.
Take a good look.  It could be the last.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alan Trueblood), Ibid.

How nice to see Borges use the word "destiny."  A very unmodern word, wouldn't you say?  It suggests something beyond ourselves, and thus makes us nervous.  Destiny?  Fate?  Soul?  "The vale of Soul-making"?  Of what relevance are they when we have Science and Progress at our disposal?

Paul Nash, "The Pyramids in the Sea" (1912)

I think the following poem captures our affinity and reciprocity with the moon very well.  In his quiet way, over hundreds of poems, Walter de la Mare often surprises us with these small gems.


The far moon maketh lovers wise
     In her pale beauty trembling down,
Lending curved cheeks, dark lips, dark eyes,
     A strangeness not her own.
And, though they shut their lids to kiss,
     In starless darkness peace to win,
Even on that secret world from this
     Her twilight enters in.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (1918).

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


Sam Vega said...

Little more than description, but perfect in its way:

And like a dying lady, lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky East,
A white and shapeless mass—

Bruce Floyd said...

It's merely a felicitous coincidence but last night I read in the Penguin Classic edition (edited by Robert Mezey)of "The Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy." I read Hardy's poem "To the Moon," and since your posting today deals with the moon, I thought perhaps Hardy's words might fit with your theme.


‘What have you looked at, Moon,
In your time.
Now long past your prime?’
“O, I have often looked at, often looked at
Sweet, sublime
Sore things, shudderful, night and noon,
In my time.”

‘What have you mused on, Moon,
In your day,
So aloof, so far away?’
“O, I have mused on, often mused on
Growth, decay,
Nations alive, dead, mad aswoon,
In my day!”

‘Have you much wondered at, Moon,
On your rounds,
Self-wrapt, beyond Earth’s bounds?’
“Yea, I have wondered, often wondered
At the sounds
Reaching me of the human tune
On my rounds.”

Thomas Hardy

Andrew Rickard said...

A wonderful post, Stephen. May I clutter up your blog with a quote that came to mind?

In The World as Will and Idea, Arthur Schopenhauer notes that the moon is an object of perception, but never of desire. The moon, he says, "induces a lofty mood in us, because, without any relation to us, it moves along for ever strange to earthly doings, and sees all while it takes part in nothing. Therefore, at the sight of it the Will, with its constant neediness, vanishes from consciousness, and leaves a purely knowing consciousness behind. Perhaps there is also mingled here a feeling that we share this sight with millions, whose individual differences are therein extinguished, so that in this perception they are one, which certainly increases the impression of the sublime."

I think of this quote every time I see the moon, and now I will think of these poems as well.

Thanks again, Stephen. Very nicely done.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: thank you very much for the Shelley. Very nice. And, as you know, the stanza is sometimes paired with this stanza by him:

Art though pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven, and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever-changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Whether paired or separate, the two stanzas complement Borges's poems very well, I think.

Thank you very much for making the connection. It's good to hear from you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: that's a wonderful coincidence! I love the Hardy poem. It fits perfectly with "The long centuries/Of human vigil have filled her/With ancient lament," doesn't it? I wonder if Borges knew of it? Perhaps it is better if he didn't: I like the idea of the two of them coming round to a similar feeling independently of each other.

Thank you very much for sharing this, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: Ah, Arthur! I should have guessed he would have paid a visit to the subject of the moon at some point. Thank you very much!

And it certainly doesn't add any "clutter" -- far from it. Like most everything else by him (in my humble opinion) the passage is marvelous. Who else could have thought of it in that way? And now you're going to divert me off into his world, which I haven't visited recently.

Thank you again. It's always nice to hear from you.

WAS said...

Hi, Stephen-

I am completely charmed into your 156-year time warp, but you must forgive me the temporal shock I feel going from De La Mare, such a pure and beautiful representation of the last embers of the old ways of l'art pour l'art - a classic "first known when lost" situation for us - to the sublime modernity of Borges. "The Limit" calls, in true Borgesean fashion, so many literary antecedents (or precursors as he would have it) to my mind, from Virgil and Schopenhauer (thanks, Andrew) to Kafka's aphorism "the fact that our task is commensurate with our life gives it the appearance of being infinite" to Camus' comment how words like destiny etc have been hijacked by modernity to create a fundamental doubt on the part of artists to this little ditty:

The skreak and skritter of evening gone
And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon,
The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
In measureless measures, not a bird for me
But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
I have never–shall never hear.
And yet beneath
The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
Being and sitting still, something resides,
Some skreaking and skrittering residuum,
And grates these evasions of the nightingale
Though I have never–shall never hear that bird.
And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,
The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.

But it is the first poem that reminds me how it was Borges who taught me to read in the first place. Though it makes reference to Leon Bloy's notion of the mirror of universal consciousness, the hologram of individual human existence, the poem is really about how looking at the moon is looking at a mirror. We only see the residue of our own experience, little to nothing of the moon's essential nature remains. This break into the awareness of our own solipsism is a peculiarly modern, although one could certainly argue it's at least as old as Homer. At any rate, the enforced distance between observer and observed has informed my way of approaching literature since I was a teenager - not quite 156 years ago.

The Moon A short list:

Ellen said...

For me, Walter de la Mare is always associated with the moon because of what is perhaps his best-known poem, "Silver" (for those few souls who don't know it):

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon:
This way, and that, she peers and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

Anonymous said...

Hello Stephen

Another lovely blog which, like the moon, gives me to think, reflect, feel and learn.

Your comment on Ruskin’s consistency led me to read again just what he did say about the ‘pathetic fallacy.’ After some ruminating, I feel confident to propose that Borges would have ranked for him among those “high creative” poets of whom he so approved, as “receiving indeed all feelings to the full, but having a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feeling, as it were, from far off.” If it were not so, Borges would surely not have the capacity to speak eloquently of the loneliness and the ancient lament, then calmly remind us that the moon is our mirror?

I discern a consistency in Ruskin, even though he admits to being delighted by the beauty of certain types of emotional falseness and condemning of others. So, for example, he could enjoy Oliver Wendell Holmes' description of a crocus as ‘spendthrift’, because it is so obvious that it is not. It seems to me that what invokes Ruskin’s judgment that a poem was third rate and ‘false’ is the kind of emotional ‘overcharge’ created when an emotion attributed to an object, such as the moon, is so unconnected with its essence that the reader is left with the impression that the object itself remains unseen by a poet. At best, the selection of object for the metaphor may be judged as inappropriate; at worst, narcissistically ignoring the object’s own quality and power creates a falsehood that leaves a poem devoid of a ‘true emotion.'

I do agree with you, Stephen, that we have humans not changed much since 1856. And then again, I find myself also believing just the opposite! And I have to smile at your reference to ‘pathetic fallacy’ since, for me, it highlights how subtle yet important changes occur over time in how we humans employ and what we mean by words. I understand that, when Ruskin wrote his famous essay, ‘pathetic’ simply meant ‘emotional’ rather than ‘evoking pity’ (or even contempt) and ‘fallacy’ meant ‘falseness’ rather than ‘false logic.’

Thanks to you and your blog for the ‘silent friendship’ which so often gives a delightful start to my day.

Bob said...

The moon may be more or less the same today as 158 years ago, but one difference in us since then is that we have been there. But perhaps that is the only real difference, since the old Crimean War and the new Crimean War, and all else that we know, can be compressed into little more than a curved shadow, says our Mr. Hardy:

At a Lunar Eclipse

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: it's very nice to hear from you again, and, as usual, you've given us a lot to think about. Your thoughts on Borges's first poem are very helpful. And, as for Stevens: once we get started on the moon in Stevens's poetry, there'll be no end of it, will there? Bringing in his "the moon and moon" for our consideration is a nice touch. I've spent a fair amount of time puzzling that one out over the years, and I can't say that I've got it sorted out yet.

And, of course, we could look at this: "The moon is the mother of pathos and pity.//When, at the wearier end of November,/Her old light moves along the branches,/Feebly, slowly, depending upon them . . ." (Lunar Paraphrase) It sounds like an echo of the Shelley quoted by Sam Vega above.

As always, thank you very much. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ellen: thank you very much for the de la Mare poem, which fits perfectly here. For me, "walks the night in her silver shoon" caused the poem to lodge in my memory. One of the things I like about de la Mare is that he isn't afraid to use archaisms like that -- which contributes, I think, to the charm of his poetry.

Your bringing up the poem suddenly brought to mind some lines from "Moonlit Apples," that wonderful poem by John Drinkwater: "they gather the silver streams/Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams . . ."

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

midi: thank you very much for your thoughts on Ruskin, which have helped me a great deal in sorting out Ruskin's thoughts on the subject. First, I appreciate your pointing out that the phrase "pathetic fallacy" bore a completely different meaning in Ruskin's time -- the phrase has indeed been hijacked by our own "modern" interpretations/misinterpretations over time.

Second, your point about Ruskin's essential objection being one of emotional falseness (I hope I am not mischaracterizing and/or oversimplifying your argument) is extremely helpful. It clarifies for me what, on the surface, might be seen as inconsistencies in his thought, but are not. (Of course, given the vast and wonderful universe of his thought and his writings, even when Ruskin contradicts himself over the years I am not at all troubled.)

Third, like you, I like to think that Ruskin would have enjoyed Borges's poem -- I think your assessment of how he would regard Borges is correct.

Finally, thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I greatly appreciate your visits and comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: a wonderful addition to our collection of moon poems. Thank you very much.

The same thing applies to Hardy that I said of Wallace Stevens in my response to Mr. Sigler's comment: once we get started on Hardy and the moon, there will be no end of it, will there?

Your selection of "At a Lunar Eclipse" is absolutely perfect in light of the Crimean War ruminations that got this whole thing started. "Continents of moil and misery." "Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,/Nation at war with nation . . ." Hardy has always been there well before us, hasn't he?

As ever, I greatly appreciate your thoughts and visits.

George said...

Well, when I think of moon poems, I think first of Ben Jonson's "Hymn to Diana", then perhaps of Yeats's "The Cat and the Moon".

Stephen Pentz said...

George: two excellent and lovely choices! Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.