Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Life

A few months ago, I discovered a lovely and moving poem.  I have a little story to tell about how this discovery came about, but the poem itself is entitled to center stage.

'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23.'

The little meadow by the sand,
Where Tamsin lies, is ringed about
With acres of the scented thyme.
The salt wind blows in all that land;
The great clouds pace across the skies;
Rare wanderers from the ferry climb.
One might sleep well enough, no doubt,
        Where Tamsin lies.

Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,
And all in life she might not have,
The silence and the utter peace
That tempest-winnowed spirits find
On slopes that front the western wave.
The white gulls circle without cease
        O'er Tamsin's grave.

E. K. Chambers, Carmina Argentea (1918).

I suspect that many moderns will find the poem to be too old-fashioned and too sentimental, too unironic, for their tastes.  Not I.  As I have noted here in the past, I consider sentimentality to be a perfectly acceptable human emotion.  Further, I am firmly in favor of anything that is deemed to be "old-fashioned."  Moreover, I believe that self-regarding, soulless irony is the bane of our times.  In short, I do not consider myself to be a "modern."

I find the poem to be absolutely beautiful.

Ernest Ehlers, "Sea Pinks, Porth Joke, Cornwall, May 1898" (1898)

Edmund Kerchever Chambers (1866-1954) was a civil servant in what was then known as the Board of Education.  In addition (and on the side), he was a leading scholar of English literature and, in particular, of the English theatre.  His most important works were The Mediaeval Stage (two volumes) and The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes).  He also prepared updated editions of several of Shakespeare's plays, the poems of John Donne, and the poems of Henry Vaughan.

In January, I posted two poems by Vaughan.  To confirm the text, I consulted Chambers's edition of Vaughan's poems on the Internet Archive. In doing so, I noticed a link to a book by Chambers titled Carmina Argentea.  I was not familiar with the book, so I opened the link.  I discovered a 32-page pamphlet that was, according to the title page, "Printed for the Author" in 1918.  The pamphlet contains poems written by Chambers.  He likely distributed copies of the pamphlet to his family and friends.

An "Envoi" at the start of the collection provides context.  It begins:  "A sorry sheaf of verse to bring/For fifty years of wayfaring/About the waste fields and the sown,/Where harvest of the Muse is grown!"  The "Envoi" concludes:  ". . . let them rest,/Poor relics of a broken quest."  In the United Kingdom of Chambers's time, literate men and women were wont to turn their hand to verse when sufficiently moved, even if the writing of poetry was not their primary vocation.  Carmina Argentea ("Silver Poems" or "Silver Songs") preserves twenty-one poems written by Chambers over "fifty years of wayfaring."

I began to read the poems.  They consisted of reflections on the city and the country, nature and the turn of the seasons, love and life.  All pleasant enough.  However, everything suddenly changed when I arrived at page 22, where I came upon 'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth.'  As I read the poem, I immediately realized that this was something of an entirely different order.  How did I know?  As in all such cases, the signs of being in the presence of beauty were physical and emotional:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in my chair, and, as the poem came to an end, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight (together with, I confess, misty eyes and a lump in the throat).

Robert Borlase Smart, "Cornish Cliffs, Zennor" (1923)

Of course, I was curious about Thomasine Trenoweth, and how she came into the life of E. K. Chambers.  My internet researches led me nowhere.  I did discover that the poem was given the title "Lelant" (with "In Memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23" appearing under the title) when it was republished in 1922 in the anthology Poems of To-Day: Second Series. Lelant is a village in Cornwall on the Hayle Estuary, a few miles southeast of St Ives.  However, I could find nothing about Chambers's connection with Lelant in particular, or with Cornwall in general:  he was born in Berkshire, attended Oxford, spent his working life in London, and retired to a village in Oxfordshire.  Cornish locations are mentioned in three other poems collected in Carmina Argentea.  Perhaps Chambers took his holidays in Cornwall?

But I have decided that it is best to leave Thomasine Trenoweth a mystery. Chambers's affectionate shortening of her name to "Tamsin" from "Thomasine" tells us something about her.  As does:  "Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,/And all in life she might not have."  And there is this as well:  "The silence and the utter peace/That tempest-winnowed spirits find/On slopes that front the western wave."  She was a person who once walked through the World.  Her departure was an occasion of sadness.  But she was not forgotten.

The following haiku by Bashō appeared here earlier this year, and it comes to mind again.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 393.

Byron Cooper (1850-1933)
"Hayle Estuary, Cornwall (The Shadow of a Cloud)"

In my previous post, I repeated one of my poetic precepts (for which I claim no originality):  "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet." Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth is a perfect instance of what I had in mind.  In his day, no one thought of Chambers as a poet. Yet he was moved by his feelings to preserve in a poem the memory of someone he affectionately referred to as "Tamsin," and to wish her a peaceful sleep.  "Parta Quies."

The poem saw the light of day in 1918, surfaced again in 1922, and then essentially disappeared.  But the poem -- and Tamsin -- have been there all along.  They now return in a new century.  This tells us something about the wondrous and patiently circuitous workings of life, art, and the World.

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"

20 comments:

John Ashton said...

Stephen,

What a delightful and absorbing post. Thank you for introducing a poem that’s entirely new to me, one also that is fresh, truthful and moving.

It may be sentimental, it may be old fashioned. Does that really matter?
Not to me. What matters is the truth of it, and that, I think, can be sensed as it is read. There is a level of rightness, of credibility to the words that, as you say, can catch in the throat. When a poem does that, it works in my opinion.
The fact that we shall never know who Tamsin was doesn’t matter, the truth of the words does.
The “clockwork of explanation” to borrow words from Wendell Berry, does not always add to our knowledge..

Response to beauty, to deep feelings can produce true poetry in almost anyone I believe.
That which touches us, that we keep inside can sometimes result is such wonderful poems as this one.

The words of Ryokan are wonderful. I think they say more than any more words I can usefully add.

Acornmoon said...

I love the poem too. Call me an old sentimental, I don't care.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for your wonderful thoughts about why poems move us. You have articulated much better than I did why the poem had the impact that it did on me: "the truth of it . . . that . . . can be sensed as it is read" and "a level of rightness, of credibility to the words" are perfect statements of why this poem (and others like it) move me. Compared with Chambers's other poems (and I am not being critical of him or them) this poem seems to be the one that came from somewhere deep inside him, and which he HAD to write in order to express his feelings. This is, I believe, reflected in your thought: "That which touches us, that we keep inside can sometimes result in such wonderful poems as this one." I agree completely.

I'm pleased you like Ryōkan's poem. It is a favorite of mine. I think it is these short, pristine (and full of truth) statements that always draw me back to traditional Japanese and Chinese poetry. Such things can be found in English poetry of course, but I think the philosophical underpinning of Japanese and Chinese culture (Buddhism and Taoism in particular) makes such poems and thoughts much more prevalent. They provide wonderful perspective.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: I'm happy to hear from you again. I'm pleased you liked the poem. I tend to second-guess my feelings about poems, and, after I posted it, I wondered whether it would strike a chord with others. Thus, I am gratified by your response. I agree with you: I have no objection to being described as "an old sentimental." We have to trust our heart in these matters, don't we?

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope the emerging spring is inspiring your beautiful artwork!

Denise said...

Hello Stephen.......the poem about Thomasine is indeed very beautiful. I looked up the word 'sentimental' in the Oxford dictionary and one definition is 'susceptibility to emotion'. Well nothing wrong with that! There are many of us, me included, who live through our emotions and feel things deeply. I feel life is the richer for it. I wonder if you know that poignant poem by Oscar Wilde called 'Requiescat' ? I'm sure some would dismiss that as sentimental. Thank you again for this wonderful blog. It brings out the best in me.

mary f.ahearn said...

I love the poem too - the emotion it evokes makes it memorable. What touches our hearts is of great value,to me at least. Thank you for the poem and surely for the so beautiful Ryokan and Basho.
The snow has ended here, the sun's breaking out - March wonders.
Mary

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you so very much. I loved the poem about Tamsin. What a lovely poem. It reminds me of one of my favourite poems, "I Never Shall Love the Snow Again Since Maurice Died" by Robert Bridges. It has always moved me immeasurably.

If there is no place for sentiment in literature, then we lose enormously. Sentiments that have no designs on making us open our wallets are sincere and deep. We live by sentiment. To feel deep sentiment is not to deny irony or cynicism.

William O'Brien said...

A beautiful poem and a beautiful post.

Janet said...

Remember Virginia Woolf and her family holidayed in that part of Cornwall at around that time. Would there be a link between them and Chambers?

Anonymous said...

After reading the poem about Tamsin, I turned to find what Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Higginson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" This too, I suppose, is old-fashioned ---
Susan

Jeff said...

I knew Chambers primarily through his now-outdated book about Arthurian legends, but this is the first poem of his I've ever read. I like it, and I don't find it sentimental at all; I think the lack of a moral, which lets us reach our own conclusions, makes it a strong piece of verse.

Your blog is now at the top of the search results when one googles "Thomasine Trenoweth." You may yet help perpetuate her memory, and knowledge of this poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you very much for your kind words. I appreciate your reference to the OED definition of "sentiment": I agree entirely with your thoughts on the role it plays in our lives. And thank you as well for the reference to Wilde's "Requiescat," which is new to me. I have found it on the internet: lovely and touching. I tend to be fond of epitaphs and elegies, so it is now planted in my memory!

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: As I noted above in my response to Acornmoon's comment, I often second-guess my feelings about poems, so I am delighted to discover that you and others respond to Chambers's poem as I do. I agree with your thought that "what touches our hearts is of great value." That perfectly describes how I feel about the poem. I'm pleased you liked the poems by Ryōkan and Bashō as well.

As aways, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps you have seen the last of the snow for the year. As for here: unrelenting rain!

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: I'm happy you liked the poem. Thank you for your thoughts about sentiment, which I agree with. And thank you also for sharing the poem by Bridges, which is new to me. I have since read it on the internet: it is wonderful. I love the way in which Bridges's description of winter in the first four stanzas anticipates what is to come later in the poem. And the opening two lines are beautiful. I also like: "the best of us truly were not brave." I have only a passing acquaintance with Bridges's poetry, but I'm beginning to think he had a knack for evocatively describing snow: his poem "London Snow" (which I'm sure you are familiar with) comes to mind. It also begins memorably: "When men were all asleep the snow came flying . . ."

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you liked the poem. Thank you for visiting, and I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Janet: Biographical information about Chambers is extremely scarce, so I don't know whether there is any connection between him and the Woolf family. An interesting thought.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for sharing Dickinson's thoughts on poetry. They fit perfectly here.

I am reminded of A. E. Housman's comments in a similar vein in "The Name and Nature of Poetry": "Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual. . . . Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of throat and a precipitation of water in the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats's last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawn, 'everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.' The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach."

Of course, Housman's examples are more prosaic than Dickinson's, but the similarity is striking.

As for your thought that any of this may be "old-fashioned" in this day and age: I think not!

As always, I'm happy to hear from you. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. It sounds as though you just received some snow back there. But things will be abloom soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: Thank you very much for those thoughts. Your point about "the lack of a moral, which lets us reach our own conclusions, mak[ing] it a strong piece of verse" is an excellent one. I hadn't thought about "Thomasine Trenoweth" now appearing more often in Google searches! But I would be delighted, gratified, and humbled if this post in some tiny way helps to perpetuate her memory, and makes Chambers's poem a bit more accessible. If this enterprise ultimately accomplishes nothing more than that in the long run, I would be entirely happy.

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Rambler said...

Although the beautiful 'Tamsin' poem is new to me, I knew withing the first few words that it referred to Cornwall, then found more and more clues as I read on. Having moved to Cornwall from my Leicestershire home more than 30 years ago, I feel almost as though the poem would make a fitting epitaph for me. I have always felt a strong affinity with Cornwall, a belonging and a sense of magic about this place. Thank you for introducing me to this poem, one I shall always treasure.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rambler: You're welcome. I'm happy that you liked the poem, and I'm delighted that its setting resonates with you. You are very fortunate to live where you do. During my visits to England, I was not able to see Cornwall, but I hope to do so some day. From all that I have seen in paintings and photographs, it is lovely.

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