This past week, the title of a poem resurfaced in my mind. I have no idea why. But I returned to the poem.
The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water
I heard the old, old men say
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'
W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Dun Emer Press 1903).
I read this poem for the first time at the age of 19 or 20, when I was taking a course in college titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot." I was quite smitten with Yeats at the time. When I returned to the poem this week, I discovered that I remain quite smitten with Yeats -- the Yeats of the 1890s and early 1900s and of the Celtic Twilight. I am aware of his faults as a person (vain, supercilious, et cetera), but I am willing to let all of that pass: I cannot forget -- and I am ever grateful for -- the scores of beautiful lines he wrote when he was a young man. Perhaps I have not changed a whit emotionally in the intervening years: "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" moves me as much today as it did on the day I first read it.
Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Winter Scene, Provençal" (1938)
The poems we love begin to accumulate over the years. (Please bear with me: I intend to contemplate the obvious in this post.) Our personal anthology of poems in turn leads to one of the many wonders of poetry: one remembered poem often carries us on to another, and, before we know it, we are out for a stroll.
Thus, reading "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," I was reminded that Yeats is in fact one of my beloved poets of the 1890s. This brought Ernest Dowson to mind, who, along with Yeats, was a member of the Rhymers' Club in London in the Nineties. "All that's beautiful drifts away/Like the waters" led me seamlessly to this:
Vitae summa brevis spem nos
vetat incohare longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896). The source of the title is line 15 of Ode 4, Book I, of Horace's Odes. The line may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225. An alternative translation is: "the brief sum of life does not allow us to start on long hopes." Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes (translated by David West) (Oxford University Press 1997).
The poem has appeared here on more than one occasion, but I never tire of revisiting it. Encountering it in conjunction with "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" broadens and deepens both poems. I realize that not everyone is fond of the poets of the Nineties. But this is undeniable: they wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.
Paul Methuen (1886-1974), "Bathampton"
As you have no doubt noticed, my incipient stroll had by now developed a theme of sorts: transience. But my stroll was a leisurely amble, not a purposeful walk with a specific destination in mind. Hence, I was content to spend a day with Yeats's old, old men, and to spend the following day in Dowson's misty dream.
Although a great deal of unread poetry lies before me, hurrying through it would be antithetical to the essential character of poetry: a poem asks us to pause and pay attention to the World, and to our existence within the World. Reading a poem should be an act of repose and reflection, not a task to be completed. Knowing that my stroll would resume, I waited. On the next day, this floated up:
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 (Victor Gollancz 1930).
Yes, "transience" had definitely become the theme of my stroll. Strong was a mid-20th century English "man of letters," a writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and literary criticism. However, "Garramor Bay" has that wistful, death-haunted 1890s feel to it, particularly the final two lines, which sound as though they could have been written by Dowson or Yeats.
Ian Grant, "Chesire Mill" (1939)
Long-time readers of this blog may by now be familiar with one of my oft-repeated mantras: It is the poem that matters, not the poet. Each poem is a singular and sovereign act of creation. Of course, few would dispute that W. B. Yeats wrote more fine poems than either Ernest Dowson or L. A. G. Strong. But is each of Yeats's fine poems "better" than "Garramor Bay" or "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam"? I think not.
We ought to be catholic in our search for Beauty and Truth. We never know when and where we may happen upon them. When I purchased a volume of Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems, I had no idea what I would find within it, but I was in search of Beauty and Truth. I had a hunch they were there. And, sure enough, I found them a few years ago when I came upon this untitled four-line poem:
Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (Chatto & Windus 1960).
These lines unaccountably reappeared the day after I read "Garramor Bay" this past week. I immediately felt that my stroll was complete.
Paul Methuen, "Magnolia Soulangiana at Corsham"