Boats of Cane
A traveller once told
How to an inland water slanting come
Slim boats of cane from rivers of Cathay,
With trembling mast so slight,
It seemed God made them with a hand of air
To sail upon His light;
Soft they unload a jar of jade and gold
In the cold dawn when birds are dumb,
And then away,
And speak no word and seek no pay,
Away they steal
And leave no ripple at the keel.
So the tale is writ;
And now, remembering you, I think of it.
Geoffrey Scott, Poems (Oxford University Press 1931).
W. G. Poole, "Plant Against a Winter Landscape" (1938)
Some may view their visitants with trepidation. To wit: "When the night-processions flit/Through the mind." Yes, we are all quite familiar with those night-processions, aren't we? I can state with assurance that they only lengthen as we grow older.
Mazing around my mind like moths at a shaded candle,
In my heart like lost bats in a cave fluttering,
Mock ye the charm whereby I thought reverently to lay you,
When to the wall I nail'd your reticent effigys?
Robert Bridges, October and Other Poems (Heinemann 1920).
I fully understand such feelings, and I have done my fair share of shutting doors and closing the curtains on (as well as running away from) the moths, bats, and reticent (or not-so-reticent) effigys that return from out of the past. But, in time, one comes to the conclusion that it is best to let them pay their visits. We ought not to view our ghosts as chain-rattling, moaning Jacob Marleys. After all, where would we be without them? They are who we are.
Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!
Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).
Leslie Duncan, "Birchwood"
Welcoming these revenants, we might be pleasantly surprised at the keenness and the clarity of the long-vanished "spots of time" (to use Wordsworth's phrase) that they bring with them. The immediacy can be breathtaking. Years, decades, vanish in an instant.
The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will, --
I sat now, for the wind was still.
Between my knees my forehead was, --
My lips drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.
My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.
From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me, --
The woodspurge has a cup of three.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poems (F. S. Ellis 1870).
Why do some things continually return to us, while so much else seems to vanish? Why that moment?
It happened once, before the duller
Loomings of life defined them,
I searched for slates of greenish colour
A quarry where men mined them;
And saw, the while I peered around there,
In the quarry standing
A form against the slate background there,
Of fairness eye-commanding.
And now, though fifty years have flown me,
With all their dreams and duties,
And strange-pipped dice my hand has thrown me,
And dust are all her beauties,
Green slates -- seen high on roofs, or lower
In waggon, truck, or lorry --
Cry out: "Our home was where you saw her
Standing in the quarry!"
Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).
This is typical of Hardy, isn't it? He once wrote of himself: "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred." (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.) Hardy suggests that his "faculty" is "possibly not uncommon," but I think not: he was remarkably conversant with the past events of his life, down to the smallest detail. From his earliest years, he was always looking. And he forgot nothing. Although we may lack Hardy's special gift, I think we all share the ability to "exhume" moments out of our past that have long been "interred." (A characteristic choice of words by Hardy, given his fondness for graveyards and ghosts.)
James Cowie (1886-1956), "Pastoral"
As I noted in a recent post, I never use the word "commonplace" in a pejorative sense. The same is true of the word "prosaic." The visitants from our past often (perhaps nearly always) move us because they arise out of, or are intertwined with, that which is commonplace or prosaic. We have no way of knowing what moments will come to define our lives, nor what part of each moment will haunt us all our days.
The blossom of a woodspurge. "The crushed bracken and the wings/Of doves among dim branches far above." Green slates. A bamboo sleeping mat.
I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --
that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.
Yüan Chen (779-831) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000). Yüan Chen wrote the poem after the death of his wife.
Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)