Monday, August 17, 2015

Blue

As I am wont to do, I was recently contemplating the obvious:  where would the loveliness of the world be without all of its variations on blue?  And for me, any consideration of blue begins and ends with the sky.  Isn't the blue of the sky the standard by which we judge all beauty?

What could be purer?  Or more serene?  What could hold more mystery, while at the same time providing the calm assurance that all is well?  It is hard to turn away from.  Closing the door on it seems a betrayal.  But there it remains, impassive and perfect.  It is not going anywhere.

          This Loafer

In a sun-crazed orchard
Busy with blossomings
This loafer, unaware of
What toil or weather brings,
Lumpish sleeps -- a chrysalis
Waiting, no doubt, for wings.

And when he does get active,
It's not for business -- no
Bee-lines to thyme and heather,
No earnest to-and-fro
Of thrushes:  pure caprice tells him
Where and how to go.

All he can ever do
Is to be entrancing,
So that a child may think,
Upon a chalk-blue chancing,
"Today was special.  I met
A piece of the sky dancing."

C. Day Lewis, The Room and Other Poems (Jonathan Cape 1965).

Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)

A brief aside before we proceed further into blue:  C. Day Lewis's description of the butterfly's way of moving through the world is reminiscent of a poem by Robert Graves that has appeared here before.

             Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has -- who knows so well as I? --
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves, Poems 1926-1930 (1931).

As much as we may admire the single-minded and diligent bees of the world, isn't it the butterflies that charm us?

I am reminded of the Emperor Hadrian's death-bed description of his soul: animula vagula blandula.  "My little wand'ring sportful Soul."  (John Donne, 1611.)  "Poor little, pretty, fluttering thing."  (Matthew Prior, 1709.) "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite."  (Lord Byron, 1806.)  A butterfly making its way, this way and that, around a garden.

Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)

"A piece of the sky dancing" naturally leads to "sky-flakes":

                    Blue-Butterfly Day

It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.

But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

Flowers that fly and flakes of the sky lead in turn to this lovely thought:

     A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly, --
     The sky of autumn.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page xxxii.

Francis Dodd, "Ely" (1926)

It all comes back to the sky, doesn't it?  But perhaps my opening paean was too simplistic.  Robert Frost is infinitely more canny (and eloquent) about these things than I can ever hope to be.  He understands the seductiveness of the sky, but . . .

                    Fragmentary Blue

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) --
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

Frost has a point.  I ought not to get too carried away.  The sky -- perfect, but impassive -- is no place to dwell.  Our world is one of butterflies and birds and flowers.  As he says in "Birches":  "Earth's the right place for love."

John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)

So let us, then, keep the blue of the sky in perspective.  Yes, there are times when we look up into it and say:  I wish this moment could last for ever. Yet, here is Frost again in "Birches":  "I'd like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over."  Our world is one of fragmentary blue.  But not any the less lovely for that.

                  L'Oiseau Bleu

The lake lay blue below the hill.
     O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
     A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
     The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
     It caught his image as he flew.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

Still, I persist in thinking that the blue of the sky remains the standard by which we judge all else.  Where would the infinite, ever-changing blues of the water be without it?  And what of the trees -- green, or gold and red, or empty -- that stand before it?

                         The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, in Leonard Clark (editor), The Collected Poems of Andrew Young (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

Now I hear the water and the trees say:  Ah, but where would the blue of the sky be without us?

Gerald Dewsbury, "Sycamore and Oak" (1992)

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Crowe Ransom

Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished -- yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
Return to the index of poems

Girl students dressed in blue dresses, no more conscious of the fell hand of time than the chattering bluebirds walking on the grass, walk the campus, perhaps changing classes. The poet looking at the blue girls knows better than they how fugitive and frail beauty is.

The poet remembers a blue girl with bright blue eyes walking the same campus decades ago. The once beautiful girl has become little more than a scolding crone, those once bright blue eyes now a withered blear, that bright blue light faded forever, all her perfections now tarnished-- and yet the poet remembers when the time-torn, time-ravaged, terrible-tongued was young, and in this day of her youth she was lovelier, her eyes bluer, than any of the ignorant blue girls wrapped in the blinding cocoon of youth.

It is important to note that the poem would not work with any other color than blue. Girls in green dresses, girls with brown eyes, walking by red birds clustered on the grass would lie in cold obscurity. Blue is the magic word in the poem.

deborah said...

Thank you for your beautiful celebration of blue, complete, as always, with gloriously apt illustrations. It was very cheering to read on such a dull, drear day. I particularly loved the painting of Ely, very near to me in Norfolk, but sadly does not currently reflect the weather conditions here!

billoo said...

This is a wonderful post. Made me think of:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This is the light that got lost..the blue of the land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not reach us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is the colour blue.

--Rebecca Solnit

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, your post brought two things to mind. On Sunday I was tending my allotment, the day was dull and overcast until after lunch the sun began to burn away the cloud and wider patches of blue appeared. That difference altered the whole tone of the day, the leaves of climbing beans seemed deeper, the yellow and orange of marigolds brighter, and as I worked away weeding between rows a peacock butterfly landed on the soil a few inches from me, it's wings wide open showing the marvellous pattern. Incredibly it remained in that same position for ten minutes or perhaps a little more.
Secondly, we recently conducted a butterfly count at our university campus in order to get a snapshot of the numbers and variety of butterflies that we have on site. We are fortunate enough to have a chalk meadow and quite a lot of woodland on campus. I was amazed at how many different butterflies I was able to see walking the open meadow, and that small world truly was one of butterflies and flowers.
As Frost says " "I'd like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over." Yet surely we do that all of the time. Each morning I walk across that meadow and it is a world seen anew every day. The same and never the same, and that is part of the joy. Infinite and ever changing as you say,and the sky, the trees, the water are all participant in those momentary beauties that we should make time to notice very day.
You have also reminded to take my volume of Andrew Young down from the shelf again. I am lucky enough to own a copy with beautiful woodcuts by Joan Hassall, which I am thinking will probably accompany me on my week's holiday in Suffolk at the beginning of September.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the poem by Ransom, and for your thoughts upon it. As you say, the use of "blue" in the poem is crucial. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deborah: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the post. I've never been to Ely, but I would like to visit some day. I suspect that much has changed since the date of the painting! For instance, I doubt that the lovely blues, greens, and blue-greens of the vegetable fields in the foreground still set off the cathedral in such a fashion (with the play of the cloud shadows as well). But perhaps they do.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Solnit: Thank you very much for your meditation on blue. Your point about blue being on the edges, and in the depths and distances, of the world is a lovely one. Your thoughts prompt me to think of the blues of the Olympic Mountains, which I see every day to the west, across the waters of Puget Sound. On some days, when the light is right, the mountains appear as serried rows in different shades of blue, seeming to go on for ever, until they disappear into the (of course) blue distance. Your thoughts parallel very well the image that I have in my mind.

Thank you as well for your kind words about the post, and for stopping by. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you for your wonderful thoughts on blue, butterflies, and the world in general. I confess that I am ignorant when it comes to the identities of butterflies, so I had to find an image of a peacock butterfly on the Internet: beautiful! But I do know that it is hard to see any butterfly sit still for any amount of time -- which adds to their beguiling nature -- so the fact that it remained in one place for ten minutes or more is amazing. You are fortunate to have that meadow to walk across each day. As you say, it provides an ever-changing world throughout the year.

Coincidentally, I have the same volume of Young's poems as you, with Joan Hassall's lovely engravings. Her style and sensibility mesh well with Young's poetry, don't they?

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Bruce Floyd said...

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

The above, the first stanza in Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar," links the color blue with the imagination. (the color green, I posit, stands for nature) It is the imagination looking over the world that creates reality, scanning an interpreting. The man with the blue guitar, the poet, "plays a tune beyond us, yet ourselves." This phrase is perhaps the key to the entire poem.

"Stevens [says] the poem's point was not that this can be done, but that, 'if done, is the key to poetry, to the closed garden, if I may become rhapsodic about it, the fountain of your youth and life and renewal.'"

I don't pretend to understand much of Stevens, but, to take a stab at what he thinks poetry is, I'd say that in a world in which the heavens are stitched, that nothing exists except the world itself--but Stevens seems to believe that the physical world is enough: if seen correctly. It must be seen with fresh eyes, with the active and curious imagination, which leads to fresh ways of seeing.

Would it be too simplistic, reductive, to say that the poet's mission is to write a poem that is beyond the imaginations of most people, but a poem, which pondered over, is a new reality that is nothing more than ourselves?

Do you think that "Sunday Morning" and "The Idea of Order At Key West" say much the same?

It's hard to imagine any other color than blue being used to represent the imagination.


billoo said...

Dear Stephen (Mr. Pentz),

er..this is hugely embarrassing. I should have made clear that that was a quote by Rebecca Solnit from her book, 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost'. Sorry!

Best,

b.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Absolutely no problem, of course. I should have picked up on that. Obviously, I am not familiar with Ms. Solnit's work, so I missed it.

In any event, you are perceptive and thoughtful for having shared it! I'll have to look further into her work.

Thank you for the clarification, and thank you again for sharing the excerpt, which is right on point.

mary f.ahearn said...

I've always felt blue to be a holy color - dearly love all shades from azure to indigo.
I wonder if you've heard of Victoria Finlay's wonderful book "Color - A Natural History of the Palette?" Very interesting.
Thank you for yet another lovely post.
Mary

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you for sharing the excerpt from Stevens's poem, and thank you as well for your thoughts on Stevens.

As for Stevens and colors, it seems to me that the "symbolic" meaning of his colors is ever-changing. (Although the nothingness and blankness of white -- usually in the form of snow -- seems to remain constant.) For instance, in "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" in one line he refers to the cat as red and in another line he refers to it as green (and he also says it has a green mind). In "The Candle a Saint" he refers to "the topaz rabbit and the emerald cat." In the first line of the same poem he writes: "Green is the night, green kindled and appareled." And, later: "Green is the night and out of madness woven." I've always thought that green in "The Candle a Saint" refers to the imagination. But I agree with you that blue for the imagination and green for nature are apt.

As to whether "Sunday Morning" and "The Idea of Order at Key West" "say much the same" thing as "The Man with the Blue Guitar": without being either facetious or dismissive, I would say that all of Stevens's poems "say much the same" thing. Of course, my observation is in no way original: many have noted that his subject (again and again) is the interaction between Imagination and the World, with the exercise of the Imagination being the essence of what it means to be human. But perhaps that is too abstract, as well as reductive. I simply read the poems for their beauty.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: I wouldn't disagree with your characterization of blue as "a holy color." Perhaps my reference to the "impassive and perfect" blue of the sky is an unconscious and unintended echo of what you suggest.

Thank you for the recommendation of Finlay's book, which I hadn't heard of. From the excerpts I've been able to find on the Internet, it does look interesting.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

billoo said...

Yes, will return here, Stephen. It's not easy, though. Firstly, coming across someone' s blog in mid-steam, as it were, is always slightly odd. Secondly, so many of the posts are so beautifully sad or sadly beautiful!

Khair...

Best,

K.

Stephen Pentz said...

K.: Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts. But perhaps you needn't think of this blog as being in "mid-steam": every post is a fresh foray, a new start, I hope. Although, yes, there is perhaps a predominant feel to things. "First Known When Lost," or something like that. (For which I thank Edward Thomas.)

But I can't say that I object to your description: and I thank you for it. It also reminds me of a beautiful (and sad) song by the late Mark Linkous (under the name of Sparklehorse): "Sad and Beautiful World." Of course.

Thanks again.

Bovey Belle said...

What a lovely post. Blue is my favourite colour, and blue butterflies my favourite kind - they remind me of the chalk downlands of "home", and the landscape of Dorset. They are not common where I live, so to find one is a red letter day. I have memories of walks along the Dorset coast, especially in the Purbecks beyond Swanage, and little abandoned limestone quarries which were awash with a plethora of butterflies, but always the Blues predominating. They briefly fluttered up as I walked amongst them and I can still feel the copper beat of the sun and the magic of that day. Then there was the Summer of the Clouded Yellows, when we stood on a Purbeck cliff-top and saw a swiftly-moving, undulating cloud out at sea, and as it came closer, we realized it was tens of thousands of butterflies, Clouded Yellows, arriving from France and beyond to summer here. We stood our ground; we were amongst them, as they flew blindly past, determined to find the best feeding places. We were in a maelstrom of wings and it was an experience I shall never forget.

Thank you for your wonderful choice of poems (as always). The Cecil Day-Lewis poem is lovely. I really must read more of his work. I can never see his name without thinking of his final resting place close to Thomas Hardy in Stinsford Churchyard.

The Frost poems are delightful. As for blue sky, not much of that around here lately - just the odd day - and now rain, rain, rain well into next week.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you liked it.

I envy you your experiences with butterflies. Your anecdote about experiencing the migration of Clouded Yellows is wonderful. How lucky you were to have experienced that. It must have been breathtaking. The migration of birds and animals has always been a source of wonder to me. But the thought of butterflies winging their way across the seas is astounding.

I agree with you about C. Day Lewis. I ought to visit his poetry more often. Thank you for reminding me of his burial place, which I had forgotten. He was quite an admirer of Hardy, and wrote perceptively and sympathetically about his poetry.

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

billoo said...

Thanks for pointing me to this song. nice. Is there any album in particular that you would recommend? Have you heard sun kil moon's 'admiral fell promises' ?

Nigel PJ said...


A great post, I've always loved the Graves' poem. The picture of Ely was most welcome. I can see the cathedral there from the top of my local hill.
I bought a book of poems yesterday called "Butterflies". It's by David Burnett, of whom I've not previously heard, and was published by the Celtic Cross Press in 1999.
This is a sample:
A pale electric blue,
the frail, pure iridescence
shimmers on a stalk
and sways,
one solitary syllable
suffusing
all the sun.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: I'm afraid that I've become a creature of the Internet when it comes to music: I tend to discover individual songs that I like, and rarely purchase albums anymore. Moreover, Mark Linkous/Sparklehorse was pretty eccentric and eclectic, so, at least from my perspective, I haven't found a particular album that stands out. But there are individual beautiful songs on each of them.

Thank you for the recommendation of sun kil moon/Mark Kozelek, who are new to me. "Admiral Fell Promises" (both the song and the album) are very nice. Coincidentally, the song title "Third and Seneca" immediately caught my eye: it is an address here in Seattle.

Thank you for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nigel PJ: It's nice to hear from you again. As I have mentioned here before, my visits to England have never included a visit to East Anglia. It is at the top of my list for my next visit, and Ely will be on the itinerary. As I mentioned in my response to Deborah, I suspect that Dodd's beautiful panorama may have passed into history.

Thank you for the poem. Like you, I hadn't heard of David Burnett before. It's a lovely poem: "one solitary syllable/suffusing/all the sun" is beautiful. I'll have to look for further examples of his work.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Mathias Richter said...

Nigel and others,
you might be interested to know that the English composer Ian Venables set Flying Croooked to music. Sorry if I mentioned it before? An excerpt is to be found at his website:
http://ianvenables.com/flying-crooked/

As always, I am delighted to meet Andrew Young at your blog, Mr Pentz!
I first encountered his poems some 15 years ago but am still continually amazed at their unobtrusive freshness.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: I'm very happy to hear from you again. As usual, you are a master at providing us with song settings of early- to mid-20th century English poetry. I've just listened to Ian Venables's recording of Flying Crooked (with the Carducci Quartet), which I found on YouTube. Very nice. As always, thank you for providing these connections, which I would never have known of without your help.

As you may recall, Young's "The Nest" has appeared here before. But it is always worth a revisit. As you say, his poems always remain fresh.

For those readers who may be interested in learning more about Young, I highly recommend that you visit Mr. Richter's excellent website devoted to Young. The site may be found at andrew-young.de.tl. (I think I've got that right.) Among numerous other interesting features, the site includes a list of musical settings of Young's poems compiled by Mr. Richter.

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Nigel PJ said...

Mathias: Many thanks for the link to Ian Venables' Flying Crooked; I enjoyed it.
I went to your Andrew Young site and now find myself astonished that I don't know his work. I'll remedy this!

Stephen Pentz said...

Nigel PJ: Thank you for your follow-up comments to Mr. Richter. His Andrew Young site is wonderful, isn't it? By the way, I suspect Mr. Richter would join me in recommending, in addition to his poetry, three prose works by Young: A Prospect of Flowers and A Retrospect of Flowers (both about wildflowers of the UK) and The Poet and the Landscape, each chapter of which is a brief essay about a single poet and the area of the UK with which each is associated. I think you would enjoy them.

Thank you again for the follow-up thoughts.

Mathias Richter said...

I am flattered by your kind comments. However, you have to bear in mind that my Andrew Young site is not a scholarly project but a labour of love. The many ads which clutter the site are annoying but that was the only way to establish and maintain a website free of charge. Anyway, thanks for visiting!

Yes, I agree, the prose books are delightful. Here his wry humour is to be felt even more. Perhaps they lack in emotional depth or thrill but that was not his intention. For a very unusual experience you have to turn to his great prose poem 'Into Hades'.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. The choice of poems, the varied choice of paintings -- & far from least, Bovey Belle's breathtaking description of an experience of butterflies few people can have had.
Forty years ago I remember the fall migration of big monarch butterflies, flying south along the Fire Island beach (off Long Island). Myriad -- a fluttering flowing stream -- covering bushes when they would stop to rest. No more, I'm sad indeed to say. Only a few fly by.
Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts. I think your Andrew Young site is BOTH scholarly and a labor of love. You have done -- and are doing -- a great service to Young and to the preservation of his work by maintaining the site. To point out just one instance: the section on "Andrew Young, Paul Nash, and Surrealism" provided me with a perspective on Young's (and Nash's) work that was new to me, and deepened my understanding of both of them. I should also mention your comprehensive bibliography of books by, and about, Young. His publication history can be quite confusing, and you cleared up a great deal for me. (Long before we met here! The Internet can be a wonderful thing.)

Thank you for the recommendation of "Into Hades," which I have not yet read. I will track a copy down.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

I agree with you about Bovey Belle's experience: wonderful, isn't it? I hadn't realized that monarch butterflies migrated along the east coast. This shows my ignorance! A little Internet research has now disclosed to me that the monarchs from eastern North America spend their winters in Mexico. Remarkable. You were fortunate to have seem them in their prime. It is sad to hear that they are disappearing.

As always, it is very nice to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.