Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Stroll

A poem that catches our fancy is likely to stay with us our entire life.  If the poem moves us sufficiently, we may discover that we have committed it (or at least part of it) to memory without even knowing we have done so.  At different times in our life, a stray phrase from the poem may return to us out of the blue.  We may think that this is mere happenstance, a quirk of memory.  But I suspect that more is afoot.

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
'Everything alters,
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:

                              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 (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"

14 comments:

Janet said...

Oh, I'm in tears. So sad. But, I think, only poetry can make sadness bearable.

Thank you for your writing. I look forward to every post.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

As I am an old man somewhat baffled by the disappearance of beauty and truth these days (i.e., those eternal values seem so threatened with extinction within the 21st century), I take comfort in your offering by Yeats. Even as the wretched beast within "The Second Coming" threatens, I yearn to escape with Yeats to retreat to "The Lake Isle at Innisfree"; now I can also gaze at the stream and take comfort in the truth that I have much in common with other old men. Thank you also for sharing other poems with which I was not familiar.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for another wonderful post. I, too, have had an early and long-sustained romance with "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water". I first read it as a teenager and it has stuck with me. "Adam's Curse," which appears in the same 1904 volume, is a beautifully meandering poem.

I find it just does not do to get involved in the "real lives" of artists. I don't read much biography. I very much enjoy the silly, angry, out-raged Yeats of old-age.

Argghh...here comes the person from Porlock!

Stephen Pentz said...

Janet: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. But I hate to think that the poems have provoked tears! Yet, as you suggest, beauty accompanies the sadness in the poems.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: I'm happy to hear from you again. I'm pleased you liked the poems. But don't be in too much despair about the 21st century. As I have observed here before, each successive generation always believes that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. This has always been the case. It's human nature.

After all, Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in January of 1919: and here we are nearly 100 years later, still waiting for the "rough beast" to arrive. I'm reminded of C. P. Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians": "And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution." (Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.) I'm not suggesting that we live in a world without problems, nor do I take a Panglossian view of the world. But we need to keep things in perspective.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you for the kind words about the post. I'm happy to hear that you share my feelings about "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water." Yes, "Adam's Curse" has more than a few of those "scores of beautiful lines" that I referred to in the post. I'm thinking in particular of these:

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

Lines like those may be too purple for some tastes, but, as I said in the post, I remain smitten with the early Yeats. I confess that I'm not as fond of his later poetry, although, of course, there are many fine poems from his later years. But they don't move me as much.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Bruce Floyd said...

Yes, Yeats is right: all that's beautiful does drift away like the waters, and what is more poignant than the death of a child, a mere child drifting out of life?

I remember years ago reading a haiku by Chiyo, a Japanese woman of the eighteenth century. I didn't glean the great wonder and beauty and pathos of the poem at first, the short three lines. What, I wondered, was significant about the phrase "dragonfly catcher"? Then I learned she wrote the poem when her little son died. Suddenly I had a vision of small boy chasing a dragonfly, his shouts filling the afternoon. I saw a loving mother watching her son. I seem to recall that after the child's death she entered a nunnery.

This little poem, to me, reveals about as much of life, its heartbreaking beauty and tragedy, as any long and prolix novel, if it doesn't reveal more.

Dragonfly catcher.
Where today
have you gone?

Wrote Emily Dickinson in 1884 when her young nephew died of typhoid fever:

Pass to thy rendezvous of light
Pangless except for us--
Who slowly ford the mystery
Which thou hast leaped across!

When I was a little boy my grandmother told me that falling stars were the souls of children playing in the heavens, their joy and delight lighting up the skies. She had lost two little boys herself, both dying at the age of about two years, slayed by pulmonary diseases a simple antibiotic would almost immediately cure these days.

It comforted her to think her two lost boys gamboling in heaven, shooting across the vault of darkness. And until she died--and I was a grown man when she did die--I'd write to her and tell her when I had seen a falling star arc across the night sky, say, "I saw Charlie and Jackie playing last night, Nannie."

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your lovely contemplation, and, in particular, for the touching anecdote about your grandmother and her lost sons -- very sad, but extremely beautiful. The poems by Chiyo and Dickinson are new to me, and both are wonderful.

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

Pamela Jones said...

Heartfelt thanks for your posts - as a bereaved mother I often find comfort and solace in your beautiful words and the poetry.
I too look forward to your every post.
Today I came across "August" by Andrew Young posted by the Woodland Trust. I understand that he is a poet that you consider has been neglected - Enjoy!
August - Andrew Young
The cows stood in a thunder-cloud of flies
As, lagging through the field with trailing feet,
I kicked up scores of skipper butterflies
That hopped a little way, lazy with heat.
The wood I sought was in deep shelter sunk,
Though clematis leaves shone with a glossy sweat
And creeping over ground and up tree-trunk
The ivy in the sun gleamed bright and wet.
Trees with the soot of August suns were black,
Though splashed in places with a bright fire-light:
I praised the daemon of that dim wood-track
Where pepper moths were flittering by night.
Songs brief as Chinese poems the birds sung;
And insects of all sheens, blue, brown and yellow,
Darted and twisted in their flight and hung
On air that groaned like hoarse sweet violoncello.
No leaf in the least breath of wind was turning,
And foliage hung on trees like heavy wigs;
White suns fringed with long rainbow hairs were burning
Inflammable leaves and the light-blackened twigs.
From that small sun patching the wood with light --
O strange to think -- hung all things that have breath,
Trees, insects, cows, even moths that fly by night
And man, and life in every form -- and death.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Jones: I'm very sorry to hear of your loss. Thank you for your kind words about the blog. If what you find here provides some solace, I am grateful.

Thank you as well for sharing the poem, which is lovely. Because of my fondness for Chinese poetry, I particularly like the line: "Songs brief as Chinese poems the birds sung."

Thank you again. I hope you will return soon. Take care.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr Pence,

My dearly beloved and I have a grandson, our first, and help care for him several days a week while our daughter and her husband are working. Although still a baby, he is aware of his surroundings and seems to like being read to. I have thought about readikng some of the poems from your blog to him. I'll let you know how it goes. Or not.

Jane the Booklady said...

It seems fitting that I read your inspiring piece due to my own ramblings through other people's blogs, skipping though many until I came upon yours.
I liked Sylvia Townsend Warner's poem and I will return to Yeats to read him again.
Thank you
Jane

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Congratulations on your new grandson! As for reading poems to him: it certainly can't hurt. Who knows how things sink into our mind, and when this begins to happen? I'm flattered that you'd think of selecting poems from here. Perhaps: "They are not long, the weeping and the laughter . . ." It has a lovely music to it, but I suspect the message is best left for later in life!

It's a pleasure to hear from you again. As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jane: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm pleased you liked the poems. I'm fond of Townsend Warner's poem: a small but lovely thing. I recommend looking into her poetry further: it deserves to be better known.

I'm delighted that you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thank you again.