Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"I Write Of Hell; I Sing (And Ever Shall) Of Heaven, And Hope To Have It After All"

This afternoon I walked down an alley of trees, beneath a canopy of leaves. Shadows and sunlight shifted back and forth on the ground as the boughs overhead swayed in the wind.  Seeing this play of dark and light, a Decadent poet of the Nineties would likely focus on the shadows, seeing in them the impending loss of Love or the menacing approach of Oblivion.

What a difference a couple of centuries makes!  A Cavalier poet of the first half of the 17th century -- although living in tempestuous and dangerous times, and being well aware of the fragility of life -- would likely focus on the sunlight, imagining it dancing in gaiety beneath an interlaced green and blue firmament.

Here, for example, is Robert Herrick (1591-1674) in the opening poem of his Hesperides:

               The Argument of His Book

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July-flowers;
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides and of their bridal cakes;
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness;
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice and ambergris;
I sing of times trans-shifting, and I write
How roses first came red and lilies white;
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The Court of Mab, and of the Fairy King;
I write of hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of heaven, and hope to have it after all.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

What a lovely list!  And it is not all sweetness and light.  Nor is the World, of course.  But Herrick accepts -- and delights in -- whatever comes his way.

Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940), "Cartmel Priory, Cumbria" (1935)

I am certainly not suggesting that Herrick is "right" and the Decadents are "wrong."  The beauty of poetry lies in the uncountable and inexhaustible ways human beings attempt to make sense of the World through words arranged in a particular order.

Here is Herrick on death, a subject dear to the hearts of the Decadents.

     After Autumn, Winter

Die ere long, I'm sure, I shall;
After leaves, the tree must fall.

Immediately following the above poem in Hesperides comes this:

               A Good Death

For truth I may this sentence tell,
No man dies ill, that liveth well.

When it comes to death, are these two poems lovelier, or "truer," than "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream"?  Who can say?  It is not a competition.  Some of us will opt for Herrick, some for Ernest Dowson.  I opt for both.

Rex Vicat Cole, "The Mill" (1922)

Be you a Decadent, or be you a Cavalier, there's no quarrelling with this, either as Art or as Life:

             The Coming of Good Luck

So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.

Robert Herrick, Ibid.

Rex Vicat Cole, "Kensington Gardens"


Unknown said...

Stephen – A lovely blog: a fine short introduction by yourself, and then on to the poetry of Herrick: much neglected, but full of delights (and a man who must have been anything but dull). I had not come across Ernest Dowson before, but fully share his sentiment: “Love and desire and hate / I think they have no portion in us after / We pass the gate.” And you are right: “It is not a competition [between Herrick and Dowson].” Like the paintings that you seem to have an inexhaustible capacity to find for your blogs, all can be enjoyed for aspects of the world seen through an individual consciousness.

Stephen Pentz said...

Peter: thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

Yes, I agree: Herrick seems to have been quite a character, which comes through clearly in his poetry, which, as you say, is "full of delights." Each time I visit it, I come away feeling invigorated, as if I have just experienced the full spectrum of life.

I'm pleased that you liked the lines from Dowson. A different character entirely from Herrick, but, to use your words, "an individual consciousness" that is well worth experiencing.

Thanks again.

Eamonn said...

Ah Stephen, A morning catching up with you again. A favourite Herrick in The Coming of Good Luck ... In my ears this morning I hear Yeats:

"And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, // Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; // There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow, // And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I love the conceit "I sing ... " repeating in The Argument of His Book. On a glorious day when life is good, to sing seems the natural response to what nature offers us - at least, I think so.

The summer is in full swing here and we are enjoying the dappled shade under the trees also ... bliss!



Stephen Pentz said...

Eamonn: it's very nice to hear from you again.

Yes, I think "The Coming of Good Luck" is at the top of my list when it comes to Herrick -- and among the top (hard to choose!) when it comes to poems in general. It is one of those that seems always to come back to me.

And "Innisfree" does go quite well with it -- thank you for that.

I agree about the repetition of "I sing," alternating with "I write": lovely.

It sounds like a good day for Herrick in your part of the world!

As always, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well.