Saturday, May 10, 2014


Growing up in Minnesota, my earliest images of excursions outside of the city were of lakes and cornfields.  Corn was emblematic of the farmlands that spread in all directions.  "Up North" lay the endless woods and the dark, granite lakes of the Iron Range.

My sharpest memories of corn are autumnal:  dry, rustling harvested stalks and, all around on the ground, bright yellow kernels.  All suffused with corn-scent.  And -- if we were lucky -- a huge sky full of Canadian geese flying southward in large, straggling V-formations, a wondrous and thrilling clamor of honks coming down from overhead.

But spring and summer were lovely as well:  row upon row of whispering and waving, deep-green limber stalks -- like fields of tall grass.  "Knee high by the Fourth of July" was what they used to say.

John Nash, "Ripe Corn" (1946)

These things never change, do they?  The following poem was written in China about 16 centuries ago.

                    New Corn

Swiftly the years, beyond recall.
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning.
I will clothe myself in spring-clothing
And visit the slopes of the Eastern Hill.
By the mountain-stream a mist hovers,
Hovers a moment, then scatters.
There comes a wind blowing from the south
That brushes the fields of new corn.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

This poem is an excellent example of the beauty of Waley's translations. He is always faithful to the literal and emotional sense of the original.  But he is also a wonderful poet in his own right, with a fine sensibility.  Thus: "Swiftly the years, beyond recall."  One gets the feeling that this line is a bit more romantic than the Chinese original:  it seems to come out of centuries of English poetry.  But one is willing to give Waley the benefit of the doubt, because it is clear throughout his translations that he has immersed himself in a long-vanished world.

John Nash, "The Cornfield" (1918)

The next poem is of a different nature altogether.  It perhaps reflects the life of the man who wrote it, a life that was harsh and brutal in its beginnings. But withal I find it lovely.

                    The Villain

While joy gave clouds the light of stars,
     That beamed where'er they looked;
And calves and lambs had tottering knees,
     Excited, while they sucked;
While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong --
I turned my head and saw the wind,
     Not far from where I stood,
Dragging the corn by her golden hair,
     Into a dark and lonely wood.

W. H. Davies, The Song of Life and Other Poems (1920).

John Nash, "Cornfield at Wiston-by-Nayland, Suffolk" (1932)


bruce floyd said...

Dickinson, like Keats, refers to that blessed moment of ripeness ("The corn, her furthest kernel filled"), consummation in full bloom, opulent and fecund, that splendid and replete moment when time, we foolish men think, we men time-shackled and doomed, yes,when we dreamers think time yearns to stay its motion and allow the moment to linger.

Oh, thou art so beautiful. Linger a moment more, I pray thee.

Of course Time can't cease its inexorable grinding, and the sun fades in the sky and birds at dusk circle at dusk and then vanish, and ripeness falls away from itself.

Midsummer, was it, when They died—
A full, and perfect time—
The Summer closed upon itself
In Consummated Bloom—

The Corn, her furthest kernel filled
Before the coming Flail—
When These—leaned unto Perfectness—
Through Haze of Burial—

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: it is always a pleasure to have you bring in Dickinson's point of view on things. It seems, as W. Jackson Bate wrote of Samuel Johnson, that, wherever we go, she has always been there before us. I thank you for another lovely -- and right on point -- poem by her.

As ever, I appreciate hearing your thoughts. Thank you for visiting again.