The pursuit of pleasure or happiness or money or any of the other chimeras that are the staples of popular culture (and of its all-pervasive partner-in-crime, advertising) is an empty, ultimately unsatisfying, diversion. Frenetic hedonism has nothing to do with our soul. We really ought to stop trying so hard.
Pino, a hill-top village, slanting street
and at the corner a wall where gossips sit
in a row at sunset, like migrating birds,
backed by the sky and forty miles of plain.
Buses heading for somewhere else; the words
cart wheels grind and jerk or a peasant cries
as the white oxen lift their swinging throats,
somnambulists with long Egyptian eyes.
The 'National' inn, the sleepy, smiling maid,
the queenly, fat Madame in a dress of spots;
simple kindnesses like that harsh strong wine;
and two weeks blank of great events. In fine
A time of waiting. Most of our life is that.
But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign
of things amazingly connected; whether some
day of thunder or night with the Plough slung over
the road of foreboding and of dreadful hope,
the road to the towns and what there was to come.
Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose (edited by Peter Robinson) (Bloodaxe Books 2011). The poem was probably written in 1947, although the date is uncertain. The village that Spencer writes of is Pino Torinese in the Piedmont of Italy.
Spencer has a wonderful habit of moving from exact, evocative description to a gently-realized piece of wisdom. Not a "moral" intended for our edification, mind you. Rather, the observations of a sensitive man thinking to himself; someone who has lived, and who now finds himself considering where his life has led him, and what he has learned.
Thus, the lovely passage beginning: "In fine//A time of waiting. Most of our life is that./But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign/of things amazingly connected . . ." There is no pontificating or posturing. This is simply the product of a life lived.
Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)
Think about the moments in your life that have the most resonance for you, that mean the most to you. I'd wager that few of those moments were planned: they just happened.
Five boats beside the lake,
pulled bows first up the shore; how hard it is
to draw them, from each angle changing, elegant:
their feminine poise, the 'just so' lifting sweep
of the light timbers round the flanks sucked thin
into the thirsty bows;
the same or nearly
as makes no difference, since men settled first
near these magnolias, lived the different life
that is always the same; fished, traded, hammered, gossiped
wanted their food and wine, appeased the Powers,
or turned and turned in their minds some woman's image,
lost or distant.
Near this bench and the keels
someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA.
Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).
As I have mentioned in the past, Spencer lived a peripatetic life. He was employed by the British Council, and his postings took him to Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Austria. While on those postings, he holidayed in various countries in Europe. Hence, his poetry can be seen as a travelogue of sorts, consisting of vignettes of his experiences along the way.
But the words "travelogue" and "vignette" are far too limiting: Spencer's poems are never merely reportage of local color. They are, as noted above, exact and evocative in their descriptions of places and people. Yet -- as in the poems that appear in this post -- his observations of the particular nearly always lead Spencer toward a low-key truth about how we humans live. "Near this bench and the keels/someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA."
Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)
I am very fond of the following poem, which has appeared here before. But, because it exemplifies what I have been attempting (inarticulately) to say about Spencer's poetry, now is a good time to pay it another visit.
On the Road
Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.
We two. And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes. I forget
the exact year or what we said. But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon. There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin.'
Bernard Spencer, Ibid.
If we have been fortunate and blessed, we know exactly what Spencer is talking about. I first read this poem 25 or so years ago, but I have never gotten over these beautiful lines, and the truth they tell: "We two. And nothing in the whole world was lacking./It is later one realizes."
Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)