Friday, July 24, 2015

Companions

I am, as the saying goes, "a dog person."  But I have been extremely fond of quite a few cats in my time.  For instance, there is George, the orange cat who lives down the block.  Three or four evenings a week he strolls through the back garden at around seven o'clock, feigning (or is he feigning?) indifference.  If his presence is not noticed and acknowledged, he will quietly sit outside the French doors, staring inside, until he is duly greeted for the evening.  After a brief conversation, he will go his way, leaving no promises in his wake.

Thus, it is not an either/or matter for me.  I am unashamedly sentimental about the dogs and cats I have known.  Anthropomorphism bothers me not when it comes to these wonderful beings.  And I am perplexed by, and wary of, anyone who expresses indifference to them.

As W. H. Auden suggests, each occupies a distinctive place in our lives.

Dog    The single creature leads a partial life,
            Man by his mind, and by his nose the hound;
            He needs the deep emotions I can give,
            I scent in him a vaster hunting ground.

Cats    Like calls to like, to share is to relieve  
            And sympathy the root bears love the flower;
            He feels in us, and we in him perceive
            A common passion for the lonely hour.

Cats    We move in our apartness and our pride
            About the decent dwellings he has made:
Dog    In all his walks I follow at his side,
            His faithful servant and his loving shade.

W. H. Auden, Poem V in "Ten Songs," Collected Poems (Random House 1976).  The poem is untitled.  It was written in 1939.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

The contemplative detachment of cats is one of their attractive characteristics.  Again, whether this is feigned or not, I am not able to say. While dogs are certainly capable of contemplation, detachment is not one of their strong suits.

Imagine the word "dog" substituted for "cat" in the following haiku.  It just doesn't feel right.

     The peony;
A silver cat;
     A golden butterfly.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 295.

Likewise, a dog wouldn't fit in a tableau such as this.

     The Cat and the Sea

It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

Philip Connard (1875-1958), "Jane, Evelyn, James and Helen" (1913)

There comes a time in each of our lives when we turn to our faithful companion, feline or canine, and say something along the lines of:  "Well, at least you love me."  Or:  "Well, at least you understand me."  And your companion will look directly into your eyes and say, wordlessly:  "Of course I do."

     The Cat Says --

The Cat says,
And so say I,
Love is a winter fire,
And a summer lawn.
Love is a sharp claw,
Love is a pricked ear,
Love is a strong wind blowing at night
And a light sleep without fear.

I say,
And the Cat says too,
Love is a warm plumage
And a scented wine.
Love is a mackerel sky,
Love is the moon in a well,
Love is a feather the midnight owl lets fall,
And all oceans in a shell.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, New Collected Poems (edited by Claire Harman) (Fyfield Books/Carcanet 2008).

Some among us may find this sort of thing preposterous, sentimental, childlike.  Not I.  I suppose one's views depend upon how many dogs and cats one has been acquainted with.  I'm reminded of something that Arthur Symons wrote about his dog Api:  "It is enough to say that the eyes would be human, if human beings could concentrate so much of themselves into their eyes."

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Lady with Cat"

This last part is difficult, for the memories of past companions come rushing.  "At first we seek to forget sorrow, to drown it in noise or oblivion; but gradually it comes back and takes hold of us and becomes our guest. Unbidden, we accept it, and recollection sits down with it by our hearth, an old friend."  Arthur Symons, "For Api," Collected Works, Poems: Volume Three (1924).

Yes, so one hopes, but still . . .

     Parting from a Cat

Whoever says farewell,
Has, for acquaintance, Death:
Small death, maybe, but still
Of all things dreaded most.
Yesterday I lost
An old, exacting friend
Who for ten years had haunted
My labours like a ghost,
Making my days enchanted
With feline airs and fancies.
Time, no doubt, will send
Some solace; and I know
Memory enhances
The half-companionship
Which is the most that can
Exist between cat and man.
But even so, I mourn
With a miniature grief
That won't relax its grip
Whichever way I turn,
Seeking to forget
My unimportant pet,
And that all life is brief.

Richard Church, The Inheritors: Poems 1948-1955 (Heinemann 1957).

Edward Bawden, "Roses and Rue" (1986)

26 comments:

Fred said...

Stephen,

Lovely post. I'm a cat person. It's not that I dislike dogs, it's just that I mesh better with the feline than I do with the canine. The paintings are quite nice--Lady with a Cat sewing could be Man with a Cat Reading.

Ultra-pink peony. . .
Silver Siamese soft-cat. . .
Gold-dust butterfly. . .
-- Buson --

"Parting from a Cat" I don't like to think about that too much. I had Molly the House Goddess for about 17 years, and now Dusky the Grey Mouser has been with me for 17 1/2 years.

Anonymous said...

The House Dog's Grave
I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the nights through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read—and I fear often grieving for me—
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided…
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.
(Haig, an English bulldog)


I look up from my desk, see on the book case to my right the three tomes, huge volumes, that comprise the collect poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Whether a reader values Jeffers as a poet or not, he or she would admit, I think, that he is among the least sentimental of poets. He writes about the savage beauty of the earth, the hawk plummeting toward the earth to snare its prey in its remarkably effective talons,("effective not cruel," Jeffers would say)about the bigger creatures of the deep feeding on the smaller ones, the carnage under the rocking sea. He writes about the indifference of nature, the unconscious sea and the mindless sky.

He writes, "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk. . . " He says about a rampaging fire devouring a hillside: "Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror / Of the deer was beautiful." The eagle soars above the flames, "come from far off for the good hunting." All is merciless, but Jeffers concludes "The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy."

Jeffers is a hard man some would say, with little good to say about the human race, its incestuous love of itself, its selfish heart out of rhythm with the rest of nature. Yes, it'd be difficult to find a less sentimental, less maudlin poet than Jeffers.

One poem in his entire oeuvre "gives him away" though, or to me it seems so. What can can one poem out of thousands tell us about Jeffers. The poem above tells us a lot.

He loved his dog, an English bulldog named Haig." Jeffers cannot bring himself to speak of the dog; no, he has the dog speak to us. The words betray how much Jeffers loved his dog, the pain of loss he felt when the dog died. The poem comes close to pure sentimentality. He avers he and the dog were friends. I won't accuse Jeffers of sentimentality.

I have loved many dogs during my life, wept the passing of each one of them. My backyard has five stones marking the graves of my dogs and cats. I tend to those graves. I loved those animals, and, like Jeffers, I prefer to think my pets loved me.

It may be true that the world and the things in the world care not a whit for human being, but, in spite of the rejection, we humans, despite a hard carapace to shield our feelings, cannot remove ourselves from loving the world, at least parts of it.
Any man who has loved his dog and had his dog, he's sure, love in him return, knows the power and the persistence of love.

Nigel PJ said...

We lost our beautiful Italian Spinone a week ago. He was only 8. We go to pick up his ashes today and then we'll place them in a river on his favourite walk.
My wife and I couldn't help the tears coming as we read the Richard Church poem. Thank you.

Bex said...

I loved this entry - being a dog/cat lover, as well, and I have forwarded it on to some friends who have similar proclivities. Your blogs are wonderful and I thank you for all the work that goes into each and every one. Bravo!

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the post. I understand your reaction to "Parting from a Cat." But you've been very fortunate: 17 years each for your two companions is a blessing. But the time is always, of course, too short.

Thank you for the alternative translation of Buson's haiku. As you probably suspect, the translator has made some additions: "ultra-pink," "Siamese," "soft," and "dust" do not appear in the original, which is extremely spare (even for haiku):

Botan ya
shirogane no neko
kogane no cho.

"Botan" is peony; "ya" is a particle of emphasis (like "!"): there are no color words. "Shirogane" is silver; "neko" is cat; "no" is a particle that causes "silver" to pair with "cat": there is nothing about "Siamese" or "soft." "Kogane" is gold; "cho" is butterfly; "no" again is a particle: "dust" does not appear.

I'm not castigating the translator, but it is interesting (as I believe you have observed here in the past) that some translators of haiku feel compelled to add to, or spice up, haiku because they believe that additional "poetic" language is necessary in order to make haiku more interesting to English-speaking readers. As you and I have discussed, this is a mistake. The spareness is the key.

As ever, thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Maggie Turner said...

A beautiful entry, Bex sent me the link, and I am so glad she did. We lost our cat, Mist, three days ago. She was 19 years old, and had been with us for 14 years. Her absence echoes in the empty shell of the house.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the poem by Jeffers, which is new to me. No dry eyes here after reading it. It took me aback, for, although I have had very little exposure to Jeffers's poetry, it seems, as you say, completely out of character with his other work. To be honest, I do not find him to be a very sympathetic character. But this poem makes me wonder.

And thank you very much for your meditation on the role of our companions in our lives. Lovely and moving.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nigel PJ: I'm so sorry to hear of your recent loss. I know that it is difficult to find any comfort at this time, so I can only express my sympathy for you and your wife. Your plan for your companion's ashes is lovely and fitting.

I greatly appreciate your taking the time to comment during this difficult time. I can only hope that the content of the post may have been of comfort in some small way. As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bex: Thank you very much for your kind words, both about the post and about the blog in general. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return often. It's always nice to discover that the things I love may resonate with others as well, so your thoughts are gratifying (and humbling).

Thank you again.

Bex said...

Stephen - I am on your list so as often as you write an entry, I will return. I went back to the beginning of this blog and started reading from March 2010... have a lot to catch up on but it's heavenly reading your thoughts and ideas and your offerings - oh the paintings! I have a soft spot for the old time paintings and they abound in your journal - again thank YOU!

Anonymous said...

George Gordon Byron

Epitaph To a Dog


Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains
Of one
Who possessed Beauty
Without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.

The Price, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over Human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
“Boatswain,” a Dog
Who was born at Newfoundland,
May, 1803,
And died in Newstead Abbey,
Nov. 18, 1808.

When some proud son of man returns to earth,
Unknown by glory, but upheld by birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And stories urns record that rests below.
When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,
Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit!
By nature vile, ennoble but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one – and here he lies.

Lord Byron’s tribute to “Boatswain,” on a monument in the garden of Newstead Abbey.


Anonymous mentions that Jeffers's poem about his dog is anomalous for the stern, misanthropic poet. It is. Another poet, some would say a cynical one, one with little love for his fellow man, was Byron. He too wrote an atypical poem, for him, about dog he lost, one he loved a great deal.I don't know that Byron wrote any other poem like this one,(Byron writes scathing satire and sad poems about the loss of innocence, the ravages of time). This poem in its praise for the virtues of his dog also excoriates the habits of man.

Like Jeffers's poem Byron's comes close to sentimentality, but he never quite enters the fustian slide show of self-indulgence and maudlin self-pity. I might note that Byron, like Jeffers, does not flinch as speaking of his dog as his "friend."

One hates to dabble in cheap psychology, but Jeffers's poem and Byron's about their love for a dog reveals a fissure in the hard cold exterior of both men, the wound they carried, a side of them they perhaps tried to subdue all their lives.


Bovey Belle said...

More than a few heart-strings pulled here. Beautiful words - at an emotional price for me, but please don't stop these wonderful thoughts and poems. From a Welsh Cat Lady!!

Fred said...

Stephen,

This version is from _A Little Treasury of Haiku_, and the translator is Peter Beilenson. He really sticks almost rigidly to the 5-7-5 format, and I wonder if he sometimes adds a word or two to get to the "required" number of syllables.

This one stood out when I first read it because, as you say, haiku tend to be spare or terse and this one seems almost lush in comparison.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Turner: I'm very sorry to hear of your recent loss. As I said in my response to Nigel PJ, who also recently suffered a loss, it is difficult to find comfort at this time. But you have my sympathy. I know exactly what you mean about the house being an "empty shell" at such a time. But, as you know, you were blessed to have her for so long a time (which, of course, seems but an instant now). As Arthur Symons suggests, we someday reach a point where sorrow is accompanied by happy recollections. But I realize that this is hard to conceive of now. I wish you well.

Thank you very much for visiting at such a difficult time. I hope you will return.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bex: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you very much. I'm fortunate to find readers such as you. This is a proverbial labor of love, so I am always delighted to discover that my loves may coincide with those of others. I appreciate your taking the time to catch up on my past posts. But, beware! I'm afraid you may discover that I am rapidly exhausting the contents of my mind!

Thank you again for your kind words, and for becoming a regular visitor, which I greatly appreciate.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Byron's poem, which is new to me. And thank you as well for your thoughts on the poem, Byron, and Jeffers. I was as surprised by this as I was by Jeffers's poem, again, because of my perception of the poet's personality. I didn't think he had it in him. Well, the ways of dogs (and cats) are wondrous.

Thank you again. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts and the poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by.

I recall, from reading Codlins and Cream, that you suffered a loss of a companion earlier this year. I know exactly what you mean about the pulling of heart strings: I went back and forth about embarking on this post, because I knew the memories that would return. You are exactly right about the "emotional price" of such things, particularly Church's poem. But so it is with life and love.

I always appreciate hearing from you. I hope that all is well with you and your family.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: That's an interesting thought about Beilenson perhaps adding words to get to the "correct' number of syllables. Blyth never does that, nor do most of the best translators of haiku. To me, it seems beside the point. I think that, in general, it is a mistake for translators (of any language) to try to replicate the technical and formal features of verse: it's hard enough to get the emotion and meaning across, without trying to reproduce the prosodic features. I agree with your use of the word "lush" to describe Beilenson's translation. "Ultra-pink" in particular took me aback!

Thank you for the follow-up thoughts.

John Medlin said...

May I put in a word for Richard Church? He was very widely known in England during my youth (born 1949) as literary journalist, anthologist, reviewer and poet. Rather like Arnold Bennett he was not perceived as being in the highest rank but rather a consistent, workmanlike professional (in the best sense of the word) who could be relied upon always to do justice to the English language. Alas, his poetry - clever, well-constructed, decent - is long forgotten now so it was a joy to find you quoting 'Parting from a Cat' in your post.
I also enjoyed the Auden song: Auden was always tough-minded but managed to obscure the fact in much of his later work with a covering of whimsy verging on soppiness. But note his craftsmanship in this little song - superb.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Medlin: I agree with you completely regarding Richard Church. I owe my knowledge of him to Philip Larkin, who included two of his poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (that, in some quarters, infamous anthology). As you know, Larkin had a marvelous knack for finding the best poems by little-known poets. I then tracked down Church's Collected Poems (1948) and The Inheritors. Your assessment of his poetry is apt: "clever, well-constructed, decent."

I agree with your thoughts on Auden as well. One has to search, but there is still much that is good to be found in his later poetry. But, as you say, his tendency towards "whimsy" (and towards rooting around in the OED for odd words upon which to construct a poem) makes the search difficult.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again.

R.T. said...

What great fun you've provided! I wonder what Auden would have said about monkeys. He lived at 7 Middagh Street with George Davis, Carson McCullers, and others; Davis had a pet monkey that seemed to be annoying and filthy resident. No, wait, I have that wrong. Auden was the annoying and filthy resident. That, by the way, is absolutely true. I and a colleague worked for a while on a book about 7 Middagh Street, but we were beaten to the punch by the author of _February House_; our research demonstrated that Auden might have been more of a problem than the monkey. Hmmmm. Now I bet you never expected your posting to attract this kind of comment.

Friko said...

A splendid blog.

I came because I am looking for Larkin’s ‘the local snivels through the field’ and found you first in line.

I am rather busy at the moment but will return the moment I have a moment.

Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: Yes, I have read about Auden's housekeeping habits (or lack thereof), at Middagh Street and elsewhere. I had forgotten about the monkey. I'll stick with dogs and cats.

Thank you for visiting again. I hope that all is well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Friko: Thank you very much for the kind words. I'm happy that you found your way here. (Via "the local snivels through the fields"! It's funny how these things work.) I hope that you will return often. Thanks again.

mary f.ahearn said...

This was a wonderful post and such interesting responses. The painting of the cat by Aldridge could well be my own Max- we seem to have tabby cats come to live with us.
The Buson poem was also in one of the Peter Pauper haiku series - perhaps my first introduction to haiku as I remember. And it was the Beilenson translation. The Blyth is so much better, but the early efforts in introducing haiku were a great gift as they presented something so new and lovely. The Peter Pauper four series books were beautifully illustrated- at that time, the artwork was called decoration. All a part of the evolution of what we now think of as haiku.
As always, many thanks for your wonderful postings. They are a joy.
And I agree with you about people who don't love animals. So sad.
Mary

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

I hope that I didn't sound dismissive about Peter Beilenson's translation of Buson's haiku. I agree that he (through his Peter Pauper Press, as you mentioned) performed a great service by helping to introduce haiku to a larger audience. As you say, his work was an important part of an evolving process. And I completely agree that his editions are lovely books.

As always, it is a delight to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.