Friday, February 20, 2015

Lanterns And Candles

The following poems share a common image:  a solitary gleam of light amid the darkness of night.  I am not clever enough to tie the poems together through explicative sleight of hand.  However, now that I see them here beside one another, I realize how well each poem reflects the distinctive sensibility, and preoccupations, of its maker.  Of course, this is a truism.  All poetry embodies the unique personality of its creator, doesn't it? But, in our age, I'm not so sure that this is as true as it once was.  People now obtain academic degrees in the writing of poetry.  This is not the sort of thing that encourages individuality.

               The Lantern Out of Doors

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
     That interests our eyes.  And who goes there?
     I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
     In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
     They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
     What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
     There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

Hopkins was a Jesuit.  Thus, the resolution of this poem comes as no great surprise.  However, I have the sense that Hopkins's religious convictions were the outcome of a tempestuous, hard-won struggle.  This introduces a human element into his poetry that is sometimes lacking in purely "religious" or "devotional" verse.  This is evident in the first eleven lines of the sonnet.  The repetition of "death or distance" is lovely.  His use of "out of sight is out of mind" is devastating, yet full of empathy and rueful truth. He knows full well that he too is a solitary lantern-bearer.  As are we all.

Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), "The Tower of London" (1897)

It is a matter of perennial academic dispute as to whether Wordsworth succeeded in his avowed intention to write poetry in "language near to the language of men" that is free of "poetic diction."  There is no denying that, particularly in his longer poems, the results were mixed.

Still, I think that he succeeded more often than he is given credit for, and this success goes far beyond the well-known anthology pieces.  This becomes clearer to me the deeper I delve into his poetry, which always reveals new, delightful surprises.  For instance, I recently came across this untitled sonnet.

Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress
Of a bedimming sleep, or as a lamp
Sullenly glaring through sepulchral damp,
So burns yon Taper 'mid a black recess
Of mountains, silent, dreary, motionless:
The lake below reflects it not; the sky
Muffled in clouds, affords no company
To mitigate and cheer its loneliness.
Yet, round the body of that joyless Thing
Which sends so far its melancholy light,
Perhaps are seated in domestic ring
A gay society with faces bright,
Conversing, reading, laughing; -- or they sing,
While hearts and voices in the song unite.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1815).

One might well say:  how can a poem that begins with the lines "Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress/Of a bedimming sleep" be written in language that is "near to the language of men"?  Well, keep reading.  The language is heightened, yes, but I'd say that this is the sort of syntax and tone that Wordsworth had in mind when he made his aesthetic pronouncements.  I find it preferable to the often purple rhetoric of, for instance, Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

An aside:  Wordsworth's poem brings to mind the following poem, which I have never been able to make head or tail of.  But it sounds lovely.

                    Valley Candle

My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

Albert Goodwin, "Salisbury"

Masaoka Shiki died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.  He is traditionally, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa, regarded as one of the four great masters of haiku.  Given Shiki's early death, there is an inevitable tendency to read his tragic fate back into his poetry.  However, although there is no doubt that his long illness (his tuberculosis began when he was 21) influenced how he viewed the world, he -- like any good haiku poet -- was primarily concerned with scrupulously recording what he saw.  But, as is the case with the poems by Hopkins and Wordsworth, Shiki's distinctive sensibility is evident in the following haiku.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 283.

A side-note:  there is a time-honored tradition of basing haiku upon the phrase "withered moor" ("kareno" in Japanese).  The most famous occurrence of the phrase is in what is usually identified as Basho's final poem:

     Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
     Over a withered moor.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 288.

Albert Goodwin, "Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire" (1910)

12 comments:

RTD said...

I agree with you about the opening lines of the Wordsworth poem; I never expected to see a simile involving a dragon's eye in his poetry. But it somewhat disappears once the rest of the poem takes over.

And thank you for posting the Hopkins. It is a feast for my soul on a day when I need one. But, of course, Hopkins can always do that for me.

Bruce Floyd said...



The light in the distance for the great poet is, even though the poet's wick will burn to nothingness, the poem he or she created, will endure, as long as the sun "adheres," each age will seek the light of the poem, and this faint light will burn steady through the darkest night of the soul. Says Dickinson (doesn't she prove her point?):

The Poets light but Lamps --
Themselves -- go out --
The Wicks they stimulate --
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns --
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference --

Stephen Pentz said...

RTD: Thank you very much for stopping by again. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

Yes, the Wordsworth poem is interesting in the way it starts off with that unexpected dragon's eye, and then moves on. I confess that Wordsworth tries my patience at times (e.g., his windiness), but I keep returning because I come across poems like this (and to return to the classics).

As for Hopkins, I have only skimmed the surface. I need to explore his work more deeply.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: As I have observed before, you are always able to provide us with a Dickinson poem that is right on point and that goes to the heart of the matter at hand. Such is the case again with this wonderful poem. Thank you very much for sharing it. It is lovely to think of poems in the way she describes them.

For some reason, Stevens now comes to mind. As you know, his conceits are (to name just two) "The Poem that Took the Place of the Mountain" and "The Planet on the Table," as opposed to Dickinson's "Lamps" and "Light." Different approaches, but both wonderful.

Again, thank you very much for sharing this, and for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.'
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Rightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with a sleep.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins's religious conviction were indeed hard earned. He struggled mightily against hopelessness and despair. A series of sonnets he wrote, are collectively called "the terrible sonnets" because of their cries for succor in his almost overwhelming despair. Almost broken, bent by the ordeals, savaged with the sorrow he had to endure, he cries to God for help, to buttress his faith, to give him strength and courage to continue to do His work.

Anyone who knows Hopkins's poetry knows how atypical it is, how different from the other poetry written during his life time. Yet, if one reads carefully, listens to Hopkins, one can understand him easily, concluding that Hopkins's style adds only grace and beauty to the poem. I carry some of his poems in my memory. I like Hopkins.(MY favorites lines of Hopkins come from his poem about a dying blacksmith: Hopkins imagines the smithy at work before he got sick:


When thou at the random forge grim forge, powerful admidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great, grey dray horse his bright and battering sandal.)



Here is my favorite of his terrible sonnets, a portrait of a man of God wrestling with doubt. He begins by saying that is grief is so deep that it is beyond normal grief. He knows more agonizing grief lies in the offing. He cries to God, "Comforter, where is your comforting?" He understands that the despair haunting him in within him. The mind itself has mountains, high and dangerous cliffs. He hangs by a thread. He says that anyone who scoffs at him is one who has never hung precariously over the bottomless abyss. But, his spirits lifting a bit, he comprehends that a human being does not have to deal long with the steep and the deep, for we come quickly like wind and quickly like water we go. Wretches like him (and aren't all of us for the most part wretches?), he says, can find comfort in the maelstrom of a whirlwind. How? Ah, death ends a wretched and harrowing life the same way the day, whether bright or murky, ends with a sleep. In the end the tear will we wiped from every eye.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, which illuminate both Hopkins and the subject at hand. You have certainly given me a better perspective on the wellsprings of "The Lantern Out of Doors." As I noted in my response to RTD's comments, I have only skimmed the surface when it comes to Hopkins. The thoughts you have shared confirm that I need to dig deeper.

I greatly appreciate your taking the time to share the passages from Hopkins, as well as your own thoughts.

Bruce Harrow said...

Dear Mr Pentz

Yours is such a civilised blog that disagreeing with you becomes an act of barbarity. But I must expose my barbarous side. You write about, “the often purple rhetoric of, for instance, Keats, Shelley, and Byron.” Well, that’s half of the English Romantic Poetry movement given a good kicking and dismissed out of sight in half a sentence, eh Stephen?

Perhaps this purple rhetoric is their style or as you put it, “…the unique personality of its creator…”

Personally I lie awake at night thinking on the rhythm and beauty of Byron:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;”

or

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;”

Similar beauties—-too long to quote here—-may be found in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ or ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ or any of the odes of Keats.

Berating these poets for purple rhetoric is about as fair as condemning the Haiku as poetry for the Twitter generation.

My apologies for the pedantry. I do like your blog—-it is such a civilised delight. It’s almost unique on the internet.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Harrow: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog, which I greatly appreciate.

Of course, it is not at all "barbarous" (nor is it "pedantic") to disagree with me! Also, please bear in mind that I am a lawyer by trade. Hence, I spent my entire working career having opposing counsel take issue (vehemently and violently) with anything I said or wrote. It's par for the course. So I am not a sensitive plant in that regard.

As far as Keats, Shelley, and Byron are concerned, note that my comment was qualified by "often." And please be assured that I acknowledge that Wordsworth was not free of "purple rhetoric." Hence my comment earlier in the post that his success in writing in "language near to the language of men" was "mixed." And I agree with you that such rhetoric is part of what one expects in the Romantics.

I also shamefacedly confess that perhaps I was intemperate for non-poetical reasons. First, I have always thought that it was bad form for Shelley and Byron (and, to a lesser extent, Keats) to turn on Wordsworth for political reasons. Second, although I try not to let my views on the personal lives of poets reflect upon my view of their poetry, I'm afraid I have to admit that, as human beings, I find Shelley and Byron to be insufferable. Sorry! I can't help myself. (But I am very fond of Keats, both as a person and a poet.)

In any event, I appreciate your point of view. And I didn't intend to dismiss out of hand everything the three of them wrote.

Thank you very much for your thoughts. These sorts of exchanges are good, for they help me to take a critical look at my opinions. Thank you for stopping by again.

Bruce Harrow said...

Dear Mr Pentz

I agree. Byron and Shelley, as human beings, are insufferable. But so are many writers. Look at the way Hardy and Dickens treated their wives or how Tolstoy treated his wife, Sonya. Out having sex with lissome young serfs on his estate whilst Sonya was deciphering his bad handwriting and copying out the 14th draft of War and Peace. But ultimately it is the writing we are left with to read and admire. It's uncomfortable acknowledging that great literature is sometimes written by unpleasant individuals.

As D H Lawrence famously said, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

That's why I am pleased that we know so little of Shakespeare's life. If we spent our time debating his absence from Ann Hathaway whilst at the Globe Theatre in London how would we view his plays? From what we know Wordsworth was the kinder, better human being and, probably, a greater poet than any of the other Romantics. Why, he even, helped the unreliable Coleridge finish The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For that we must all be grateful.

Thank you for responding kindly to my post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Harrow: Thank you very much for your follow-up comment. We are in agreement. As I indicated in my initial response, I try not to base my views of a person's poetry (or of anyone's art) on their personal life (except in extreme cases). How could it be otherwise? We are all human beings, and thus a collection of flaws, follies, errors, and regrets. I am in no position to judge.

Again, thank you very much for the thought-provoking comments. I hope you'll return soon.

E Berris said...

What impact these poems have taken together. The Hopkins is instantly recognisable as his - do read some more, but the Wordsworth was new to me and the others. Living in the England, it is hard to think of night without any light whatsoever - I recall this complete darkness in rural New Zealand - so this is the reality of Wordsworth's tiny light.
Thanks again, definitely a blog to remember.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for the kind words. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

Yes, Hopkins is, as you say, "instantly recognisable," isn't he? I have also been noticing the past year or so (as I have mentioned previously) how much Ivor Gurney sounds like him. There is quite an influence there.

I agree with you that it is hard for us to imagine how dark the countryside would have been for Wordsworth (and Hopkins and Shiki), and thus how much of an impact a solitary lantern or candle would have had upon a distant observer.

As always, thank you for stopping by, and for your thoughts.