Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I am easily pleased.  In that spirit, I come to you with my annual May report:  the ants have emerged from their winter hibernation and are going about their business again.  "What is of more interest to you, the American presidential election or the ants erecting mounds of particolored grains of sand in the seams of sidewalks on a sunny afternoon in May?"  My response to that question is obvious.


Ah, there is no abiding!
     Signs from heaven are sent,
Over the grass the wind went gliding,
     And the green grass grew silver as he went.

Ah, there is no remaining!
     Ever the tide of ocean ebbs and flows,
Over the blue sea goes the wind complaining,
     And the blue sea turns emerald as he goes.

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

The ants, in their antic and endearing fashion, remind me that there is constancy within change.  But I harbor no illusions:  this constancy is a qualified constancy.  Each year I am greeting a new generation of ants, not old acquaintances.  As for me, I am simply on a different schedule.  We are all walking in a straight line towards eventual dust.  This is not cause for alarm or sadness or brooding.  It is just something that we need to get used to, and accept.

"Reflect frequently upon the instability of things, and how very fast the scenes of nature are shifted.  Matter is in a perpetual flux; change is always, and everywhere, at work, it strikes through causes, and effects, and leaves nothing fixed, and permanent.  And then how very near the two vast gulphs of time, the past, and the future, stand together!  Now upon the whole, is not that man a blockhead that thinks these momentary things big enough either to make him proud, or uneasy?

Remember what an atom your person stands for in respect of the universe, what a minute of unmeasurable time comes to your share, and what a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book V, Sections 23 and 24, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702).

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

"What a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"  Yes, most of our life is a matter of getting over ourselves, isn't it?  Of course, we never truly get over ourselves.  (Perhaps mystics and saints do.  But I'm not sure about that.)  The best we can hope for is to gain perspective, bit by bit:  to recognize the contingency and the fragility of every breath we take.

                            Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Gollancz 1930).

Bertram Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)

I am very lucky.  When I go out for my afternoon walk, I can, on the one hand, watch the wonderful progress of rising anthills in the seams of sidewalks.  On the other hand, I can turn a corner and see, to the west, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains towering beyond the blue and glittering expanse of Puget Sound.  We live our lives between these anthills and peaks.

Yesterday, I watched a single white sail move across the waters of the Sound from south to north, now in the sunlight, now in the shadow of a passing cloud.

                    Times Go By Turns

The loppèd tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorriest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moistening shower;
Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The sea of fortune doth not ever flow,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb;
Her tides hath equal times to come and go,
Her loom doth weave the fine and coarsest web;
No joy so great but runneth to an end,
No hap so hard but may in fine amend.

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay:
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

A chance may win that by mischance was lost;
The net that holds no great, takes little fish;
In some things all, in all things none are crossed;
Few all they need, but none have all they wish.
Unmeddled joys here to no man befall;
Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all.

Robert Southwell (1561-1595), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Sloane 1949).

Bertram Priestman, "The Great Green Hills of Yorkshire" (1913)

These things the poets and the ancient philosophers tell us about "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") are regarded by many moderns as mere "truisms."  As if the modern world had advanced beyond them in all of its supposed knowingness and sophistication.  As for me, I am quite content to live by truisms.  They are, after all, true.

     Tilling the field:
The man who asked the way
     Has disappeared.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 165.

Life is not a matter of metaphysical speculation or of theory.  Science, politics, economics, and other modern (and utopian) preoccupations are of no relevance whatsoever in our soul's contingent world.  It is all beautifully simple.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 85.

Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)


Bruce Floyd said...

The month of May, with the return of the ants you notice and admire, ensorcels us. It mesmerizes us to conclude that the return of May brings once more the ants we saw last year, the red rose on the trellis the same rose. Keats, you will recall, imagined he heard an eternal nightingale singing from deep in the forest.

Spring fertilizes the capacity for our illusion. Unwilling, perhaps, to do hard thinking, we allow ourselves the chimera of thinking nature keeps renewing itself anew, as if the dead leaf on the river birch outside my window never truly died but is now miraculously alive again--its green illuminated by the sun at meridian.

When the dead world resurrects itself--and the majestic-crested cardinal I see at the bird feeder is to me the same one I saw this time last year--I conclude, somewhat wistfully that the only thing that dies and never returns is the human consciousness that revels in the rose and the cardinal. All lives on but we poor humans. We die, and then we vanish forever, no bright May sunlight capable of giving us motion and breath. Spring eternally alien to our dust.

In her poem below Dickinson says that the world exterior to our sensibility can renew itself, can be adjusted. The world can change--the seasons come and go, the wind sings over the sea day after day, clouds build and dissolve, only to build again.

For a human being, however, the big change is death, and from death there is no reprieve or mending. After our death, the changes, all physical, are too gruesome to think about when May in all her finery, come back again, stands rich and regal just beyond my window.

All but Death, can be Adjusted
Dynasties repaired
Systems — settled in their Sockets
Citadels — dissolved

Wastes of Lives — resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs
Death — unto itself — Exception
Is exempt from Change

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts. Part of what you say reminds me of Philip Larkin's "The Trees" (which, as you may recall, I post here each May as my "May poem"), particularly the second stanza of the poem:

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

I'm afraid that I must good-naturedly quibble with you a bit on a couple of points. First, I'm not certain that, as you say, "All lives on but we poor humans." As I said in my post, everything alive in the world is on the road to eventual dust. I concede that humans may be unique is this respect: we are perhaps the only living things that know that death awaits us.

Second, I am not in a position (due to a lack of knowledge, which I may or may not acquire when I die) to agree with you that "the only thing that dies and never returns is the human consciousness" or that "we die, and then we vanish forever." With all due respect, I don't think that any of us is in a position to make such statements with absolute certainty. In saying this, please be aware that I am not being critical of you for holding those views -- you may be right. But, speaking solely for myself, I cannot accept either proposition as "truth" or "fact" -- I simply don't know. My position is not theological or metaphysical -- again, I simply don't know, and I am not prepared to foreclose any possibilities.

Thank you as well for the poem by Dickinson, which is new to me. It fits perfectly here.

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

mary f.ahearn said...

Lovely thoughts,poems and art. I am reminded of Thomas Hardy's beautiful description of the Vale or Blakemore,or Blackmoor, as he puts it, in the second chapter of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles in the first picture. I have May poems too, and May books - "Tess" is one with that wonderful description of the Vale and May Day. The painting seems to bring it to my eye.
Thanks for your post, as always.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post. And thank you for reminding me of the opening of Tess, and, in particular, the description of May Day. I have it in front of me now, and I was reminded of this wonderful sentence: "The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns -- a gay survival from Old Style days, when cheerfulness and May-time were synonyms -- days before the habit of taking long views had reduced emotions to a monotonous average." There is a dream-like and timeless feeling to the opening of that chapter.

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