Sunday, December 9, 2018

Interval

In this part of the world, any clear day between November and April is considered a gift.  One feels compelled to walk out into it, for its like may not be seen again for who knows how long.

In deepening December, darkness arrives ever earlier each day, of course.  On clear December days darkness falls in the blink of an eye. The light is extinguished.  As I walked home in cold twilight one evening this past week, I thought of the Venerable Bede's fleeting sparrow.

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.  The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.  So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.  If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

The Venerable Bede (translated by A. M. Sellar), in A. M Sellar, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England (George Bell and Sons 1907), pp. 116-117.

William Wordsworth versified the Venerable Bede's passage in the following sonnet.  The poem appeared here a few years ago, but it is always worth revisiting.

                           Persuasion

"Man's life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That -- while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire -- is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest.  Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes.  Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!"

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Three (Oxford University Press 1946).

"The Stranger" referred to in line 13 is Paulinus, who, in 601, was sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  The incident (which may or may not be apocryphal) took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).

The Venerable Bede's "but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all" and Wordsworth's "But whence it came we know not, nor behold/Whither it goes" bring this to mind:

Thou gavest me birth, Eileithyia; Earth, thou wilt hide me sleeping.
     Farewell to you both.  I have finished the race you measured me.
I go, not knowing whither.  For whence I came to your keeping,
     I know not, neither who made me, nor yet who I may be.

Macedonius (6th century A. D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 386. Eileithyia, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, is the Greek goddess of childbirth.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

From darkness into light, thence back into darkness.  "Passing from winter into winter again."  But there are always compensations along the way.  On one of last week's clear afternoons, a half-hour or so before the sun disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains, I walked north down an avenue of bare trees.  The stout grey-brown trunks of the trees were already wrapped in the shadows of dusk.  But the branches overhead were bathed in yellow sunlight, shining in the pale blue sky.  The smallest twig was gilded in gold.

     Bird in the Lighted Hall

The old poet to his lute:
"Bright door, black door,
Beak-and-wing hurtling through,
This is life.
(Childhood lucent as dew,
The opening rose of love,
Labour at plough and oar,
The yellow leaf,
The last blank of snow.)
Hail and farewell.  Too soon
The song is mute,
The spirit free and flown.
But you, ivory bird, cry on and on
To guest and ghost
From the first stone
To the sag and fall of the roof."

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Due to our temperate climate, most of the robins stay here all winter. But their behavior changes:  rather than living on their own, or as couples and families, they gather together in small flocks.  They fly in a group from tree to tree, chattering all the while, with no quarrels. Now and then, they fly together out onto the meadows, where they hop and peck their way -- still amiably chattering -- across the green grass (thanks to the rain, our grass returns to green in the winter).

               The Long Hall

The skald tuned his harp.  The riff-raff
     Lounged between the barrel
     And the hearth (the Earl
          That winter night

Sat with the Bishop, a golden
     Cup between them, a loaf
     Tasting of honey, flames
          Eating the spitted ox).

Harp sang the swallowflight
     Through the lighted hall,
     A small troubling
          Between two dark doors.

Barnmen came in.  Fishermen
     Shifted into the shadows.
     A kitchen girl carried
          A plate of bones

To the hungry hound.  A keg
     Was broached.  Outside
     Children went by, chanting
          Of snowflakes and apples.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Walter Ashworth (1883-1952)
"Carnival Night, Memorial Park, Coventry" (1937)

"A small troubling/Between two dark doors."

As I returned home on one of my twilit walks this past week, I heard behind me -- over my right shoulder -- an unmistakable honking:  a small flock of Canadian geese.  I could not see them for the darkness. But I could follow them by the progress of their ancient cries.  They flew low across the fields, curving down toward the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  As they headed south, their honking slowly faded away.

I kept walking.  Beside the path were snowberry bushes, empty of leaves, but filled with cream-white berries, bright in the dusk.  Far off, in the tall grass at the edge of a field, a solitary unknown bird clucked a few times and then fell silent.

                              Winter Evening

Over the wintry fields the snow drifts; falling, falling;
        Its frozen burden filling each hollow.  And hark;
        Out of the naked woods a wild bird calling,
                On the starless verge of the dark!

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), "Winter" (1892)

Friday, November 23, 2018

Poetry

Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of our mortality?  I sometimes think so.  My thought is prompted by my continued meanderings through ancient Greek verse, where one comes across lines such as these:

Alas and alas, when the mallow dead in the garden lies,
Or the pale-green parsley withers, or the lush-curled anise dies,
Yet they rise anew and quicken when spring returns again.
But we the strong, the mighty, the wise, we sons of men,
When we die and the earth is o'er us, ah then how long, how deep,
Unhearing, unawaking, night without end we sleep!

Anonymous (2nd century B. C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 332.  The lines are from "Lament for Bion."  The poem was formerly attributed to Moschus.  However, after it was discovered that Moschus antedated Bion, the poem is now attributed to an unknown poet who may have been a follower of Bion.

Here is an alternative translation of the same lines:

Alas, when mallow in the garden dies,
Or parsley green or crinkled anise dear,
They live again, they rise another year:
But we, the tall, the mighty and the wise,
Once dead, beneath the hollow ground must keep
A long dumb changeless unawakening sleep.

Anonymous (translated by Gilbert Murray), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 754.  Murray's comma free final line is wonderful.

The passage from "Lament for Bion," though unsparing in its message, arguably has a reassuring aspect to it:  the mallow, the parsley, and the anise will return to blossom again; hence, our fate unfolds within a larger context, which we ought to bear in mind.  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go after we have returned to the dust can be a source of equanimity and serenity (or so it is for me, at least).

The epigrams on our mortality in The Greek Anthology tend, on the whole, to withhold consolation.  For instance:

Life is the fool of hope, till one last morning
Sweeps all our schemes away, without a warning.

Julius Polyaenus (1st century A. D.) (translated by Hugh Macnaghten), in Hugh Macnaghten, Little Masterpieces from The Anthology (Gowans & Gray 1924), page 19.

Thomas Mostyn (1864-1930), "Memory's Garden" (1900)

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to consider an alternative: Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of the joy of living an evanescent life?  Joy.  Not mere happiness (a misused and delusive chimera).  One can be miserable, even in despair, and still experience joy.  "The word 'joy.'  Take the time to think about this word.  I'm surprised that it suddenly comes back to me."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry (May of 1979), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 336.

Cool waters tumble, singing as they go
Through appled boughs.  Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
               My soul entrancing.

Sappho (7th century B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 210.

Most of Sappho's poetry comes to us in fragments.  Thus, the lines translated by T. F. Higham are all that remain of a poem that has otherwise vanished.  But there is something both apt and affecting in the joy embodied in the beautiful particulars of the fragments.  Such small beauties are what we are most likely to encounter in our day-to-day, quotidian, commonplace life.  (Mind you, as I have noted here in the past, I never use the words "quotidian" or "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)  "We live in a constellation/Of patches and of pitches."  (Wallace Stevens, "July Mountain.")  Fragmentary, momentary beauty.

Sit all beneath fair leaves of spreading bay,
     And draw sweet water from a timely spring,
And let your breathless limbs, this summer day,
     Rest, in the west wind's airy buffeting.

Anyte (4th century B. C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 38.

Just as a thread of mortality runs through ancient Greek verse, so does a thread of joy.  An evanescent joy, yes.  Yet a timeless joy as well.  A joy shot through with eternity.

I fear I am wandering too far afield, but consider this:  "If thou shouldst live three thousand years, or as many myriads, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 14, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).  Or, looked at from a different angle:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).

But let us return to the beautiful particulars, and to joy:

                                   Ah, what joy
Can out-joy this -- to reach the land -- and then,
Safe-lodged, with happy drowsing sense to hear
The raindrops pattering on the roof outside!

Sophocles (5th century B. C.) (translated by Walter Headlam), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 383.  The lines are from Tympanistae, a play by Sophocles that has been lost, save for a few fragments. Headlam's translation of the lines first appeared in A. C. Pearson (editor), The Fragments of Sophocles, Volume II (Cambridge University Press 1917), page 264.

David Baxter (1876-1954), "Woodland Scene"

In my part of the world, nearly all the leaves have fallen.  Bare branches clack and creak in the wind.  The sun sets earlier and earlier.  Out on a late afternoon walk this week, I felt that the World was a bit diminished.  But, as I emerged out of a dark wood, I suddenly saw the white moon, waxing gibbous, in the pale blue eastern sky.

The thread of mortality and the thread of joy are intertwined.  And wondrously so.  In life and in poetry.

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 234.

Come to think of it, a third alternative now occurs to me:  Is the primary office of poetry to remind us to live each day of our life with gratitude?

Mary Jane Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (c. 1900)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Small Gods

For the past month or so, I have been reading ancient Greek poetry in translation -- mostly poems from The Greek Anthology, but other lyric poetry as well.  I recently came across these lovely lines by Hesiod:

To spirits thrice ten thousand by God's will 'tis assigned
Through all the fruitful earth to watch o'er humankind.
Deathless, hidden in darkness, wandering everywhere,
They watch all judgments given, all evil that men dare.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Works and Days (lines 252-255), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 205.

The lines brought to mind a passage from Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone, the collection of thoughts that Leopardi entered in notebooks between 1817 and 1832:

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

Leopardi is perhaps best known for his dire and unremitting pessimism about the nature of human existence.  His philosophical pessimism has an important historical element.  He believes that the modern world (for Leopardi, who lived from 1798 to 1837, the modern world was the first three decades of the nineteenth century) is a shadow of its ancient former self -- to wit, the world of Greece and the world of Rome.  Leopardi held this view at the tail end of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  Where, then, does that leave us?

I turn to Hesiod again:

Earth bare the long-ridged mountains, within whose fair depths dwell
The Nymphs divine, in the valleys that run 'neath peak and fell.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Theogony (lines 129-130), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 206.  "Bare" is used in the sense of "bore," or "gave birth to."

Leopold Rothaug (1868-1959), "Classical Landscape" (1939)

I can hear, faintly, the cry of enlightened moderns (which, dear readers, may include some (most?) of you):  "But we have progressed beyond such fanciful fairy tales!  Get with the program."  Ah, yes, I am well aware of the "progress" humanity has made in the intervening centuries.  I can look around and see all that we have wrought.  Which is why I do my best to look for Immanence in the beautiful particulars of the World.  Which is why I am open to the possibility of small gods dwelling in vales, meadows, groves, springs, and rills.

I am the god of the little things,
     In whom you will surely find,
If you call upon me in season,
     A little god who is kind.
You must not ask of me great things,
     But what is in my control,
I, Tychon, god of the humble,
     May grant to a simple soul.

Perses (4th century B.C.) (translated by Rennell Rodd), in Rennell Rodd, Love, Worship and Death: Some Renderings from The Greek Anthology (Edward Arnold 1919), page 23.

Here is an alternative translation:

Little am I among lesser gods; but call in season
     Even on me, and I hearken.  Yet ask me for nothing grand.
Things that a god of the people may look to give in reason,
     When a poor labourer prays him -- these lie in Tychon's hand.

Perses (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 280.

The humble, nature-dwelling gods who appear in the poems of The Greek Anthology generally wish us well, and have no hidden agendas.  Is this simply a human attempt to put a benign face upon nature, to construct a comforting fiction?  Perhaps.  Mortality is, after all, the thread that runs through the Anthology, and through most of ancient Greek verse.  But it seems to me that Leopardi's observation is beautifully correct:  the Greeks viewed -- and inhabited -- the World in a way that we can never fully comprehend.

Here at the three-ways, near the foam-white strand,
I, Hermes, by the breezy orchard stand.
Rest from the road to weary men I bring:
Beneath me wells a cool, untroubled spring.

Anyte (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 39.

Another translation of the same poem:

Beside the grey sea-shingle, here at the cross-roads' meeting,
     I, Hermes, stand and wait, where the windswept orchard grows.
I give, to wanderers weary, rest from the road and greeting:
     Cool and unpolluted from my spring the water flows.

Anyte (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 319.

This much is certain:  we are not entitled to think of the ancient Greeks as "naive" or "quaint," nor are we in a position to patronize them.  Look around you.

I, Pan the Shoreman, on this foreland wet,
Pan, warden of this good anchorage, was set
By fishermen.  Anon I mind the creel;
Anon I watch these long-shore netters' weal.
But sail you on; and I shall send behind,
For this beneficence, a gentle wind.

Archias (1st to 2nd century A.D.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology, page 43.

Friedrich König (1857-1941), "The Silent Pond" (1910)

Have I taken leave of my senses?  That is entirely possible.  Or perhaps I am not willing to foreclose any possibilities.  Think of it as a pantheistic variation on Pascal's Wager.  Or let's just say that I am persuaded by this poem, of which I am quite fond, and which has appeared here in the past.

                         Ionic

That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975), page 63.

Leopold Rothaug, "Far Away" (1945)

Hesiod's phrase "spirits thrice ten thousand," in addition to bringing to mind the passage from Leopardi, prompted me to think of this as well:

                 Shinto

When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 451.

As I walked down an avenue of emptying trees recently, it occurred to me that our life unfolds between the dry leaves scattered on the ground and the limitless sky overheard (on that day, blue, streaked with long wispy lines of white cloud feathers).  This is where the small gods may dwell.  "Thrice ten thousand" or "eight million," who can say?

Ferdinand Brunner (1870-1945), "The Summer Morning" (1913)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What The Leaves Say

We have now well and truly entered the season of bittersweet wistfulness, the season of wistful bittersweetness.  Is there anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than a sunny, wind-swept brilliant autumn day?  Here, in this corner of the World, we have had five of them in succession, with more on the way.  How can so much joy and so much sadness abide together?

"A brilliant autumn day."  "The brilliant autumn sky."  "The brilliant autumn leaves."  Yes, cliché after cliché:  at times like these, I am only capable of evocation, not exact and accurate description.  I will offer this as an excuse:  you had to have been there; words fail.  Of course, dear reader, you can say the same thing to me, from wherever you are.  Each of us has our own "brilliant autumn day," incommunicable, ineffable.  Some beauty (all beauty?) is beyond words.  In the presence of autumn, anything other than silence is a diminishment.

Still, we have the human urge to articulate . . . something.  What, for instance, do the leaves say?

                  Imitation

Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti (Carcanet Press 1994).

The poem is a translation of "La Feuille" ("The Leaf") by the French poet Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).  Hence the title "Imitation."

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

On leaves, Wallace Stevens (he of the wonderful poem titles) gives us this:  "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man."  There are "many meanings in the leaves,//Brought down to one below the eaves . . . It is not a voice that is under the eaves./It is not speech, the sound we hear//In this conversation, but the sound/Of things and their motion."  A caveat, however:  Stevens was of two (or three or four) minds about this conversation with the World.  Thus, for example, there is this from "The Motive for Metaphor":  "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead./The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves/And repeats words without meaning." (As for the identity of the "silent man" in this "continual conversation," that is something else altogether, and is beyond my ken.)

Yet, if the leaves are saying something, why not listen?  The message may be beguiling.  It may be comforting.  Or full of portent.

            Fast Fall the Leaves

Fast fall the leaves: this never says
To that, "Alas! how brief our days!"
All have alike enjoy'd the sun,
And each repeats, "So much is won:
Where we are falling, millions more
Have dropt, nor weep that life is o'er."

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (James Nichol 1858).

Alexander Docharty (1862-1940), "An Autumn Day" (1917)

"I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 117.)  So wrote Thomas Hardy in a notebook entry made on May 30, 1877, in his thirty-sixth year.  He lived nearly 51 more years.  As one might expect, during that half-century Hardy's thoughts on the volubility of inanimate Nature underwent further elaboration and qualification, as evidenced in his poetry.  (He, like Wallace Stevens, was of many minds.)  Moreover, as is characteristic of Hardy, the observation contains its own qualifications.  "I sometimes look upon . . ."  And, of course, "pensive mutes":  incapable of speech, but nevertheless capable of thought and reflection.

This brings us in a roundabout way to a poem which has appeared here several times in the past.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

"Earth never grieves!" is what the poem leads to.  But, for me, the loveliest and most affecting words in the poem are the six words that come next:  "Will not, when missed am I."  Simple, piercing, serene. Is this what the leaves say?  You will have lived your life well if you can come to speak those words and know their truth in your heart.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Madness And Life

A native of any country goes through periods when he or she becomes convinced that his or her nation has gone stark, raving mad.  The past few weeks have done it for me.

I am not here to discuss the details, for they are of no moment. (Should you encounter a person who feels otherwise, give them a wide berth.)  The madness is the point.  Mind you, most of the country's inhabitants have not taken leave of their senses.  But they know full well where the madness resides.

For me, the solution is simple.  Tonight, I sought out some beloved lines, sat down and read them, and all was well with the World.

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece;
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy, can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters:
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1920).  The eight lines are untitled.  They are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632, page 254.

As I fall asleep tonight I will be thinking of constant Penelope and her lovely complaint, and of nothing else.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Threshold

Please bear with me:  I have already entered autumn.  I did so a few weeks ago.  Because it is my favorite season, each year I try to hasten its arrival.  Something along these lines:  "When I said autumn, autumn broke."  (Elizabeth Jennings, "Song at the Beginning of Autumn.")

The irony of my annual attempt to hurry along the advent of autumn is not lost on me:  each season has its own beauty, but autumn's is the most evanescent.  I hurry autumn's beauty along only to watch it vanish.  I suppose there is a lesson in this.  Ah, yes, of course:  "first known when lost."

When I was young, not knowing the taste of grief,
I loved to climb the storied tower,
loved to climb the storied tower,
and in my new songs I'd make it a point to speak of grief.

But now I know all about the taste of grief.
About to speak of it, I stop;
about to speak of it, I stop
and say instead, "Days so cool -- what a lovely autumn!"

Hsin Ch'i-chi (1140-1207) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 371. The poem is untitled.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Harvest Time" (1860)

A few days ago, while out on my afternoon walk, I looked to the west at a row of tall pine trees at the far side of a meadow, near the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  The pines -- swaying silently in the distance -- were set against a deep blue and purple, steel-grey wall of approaching dark storm clouds.  The scene seemed to betoken all that is to come.

"This is the beginning of the pageant of autumn, of that gradual pompous dying which has no parallel in human life yet draws us to it with sure bonds.  It is a dying of the flesh, and we see it pass through a kind of beauty which we can only call spiritual, of so high and inaccessible a strangeness is it.  The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence.  Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while."

Edward Thomas, The South Country (J. M. Dent 1909), page 272.

George Vicat Cole, "Iffley Mill" (1884)

We have seen this passing and vanishing before.  But we never tire of it.  Or we ought not to.  If we ever do, our life may as well be over. This is the World we were made for.

     Sitting at Night on the Moonlit Terrace

Fall days are not entirely free of heat,
but fall nights are clear right through to dawn.
So the old man for several evenings running
has been sitting outdoors until the third watch.
The wind blusters, stars bright one moment, gone the next;
clouds scud by, the moon greeting them, sending them off.
You chase after delights, chase in vain,
then when you think there're no delights, suddenly they come!

Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 349.

George Vicat Cole, "Autumn Morning" (1891)

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Life

I suppose I'm just a sentimental old fool.  (Although, as I have noted here in the past, I find nothing wrong with sentimentality, and will choose it over cold and soulless modern irony any day of the week.) Hence, certain poems never fail to move me.  An elegy for Thomasine ("Tamsin") Trenoweth of Cornwall.  An epitaph for Claudia of Rome. A haiku written in memory of the nun Jutei.  Names.  But more than mere names.

Over the past weekend, I came upon this, and another name.

                         Anne's Book

And so, Anne Everard, in those leafy Junes
Long withered; in those ancient, dark Decembers,
Deep in the drift of time, haunted by tunes
Long silent; you, beside the homely embers,
Or in some garden fragrant and precise
Were diligent and attentive all day long!
Fashioning with bright wool and stitches nice
Your sampler, did you hear the thrushes' song
Wistfully?  While, in orderly array,
Six rounded trees grew up; the alphabet,
Stout and uncompromising, done in grey;
The Lord's Prayer, and your age, in violet;
Did you, Anne Everard, dream from hour to hour
How the young wind was crying on the hill,
And the young world was breaking into flower?
With small head meekly bent, all mute and still,
Earnest to win the promised great reward,
Did you not see the birds, at shadow-time,
Come hopping all across the dewy sward?
Did you not hear the bells of Faery chime
Liquidly, where the brittle hyacinths grew?
Your dream -- attention; diligence, your aim!
And when the last long needleful was through,
When, laboured for so long, the guerdon came --
Thomson, his Seasons, neatly bound in green --
How brightly would the golden letters shine!
Ah! many a petalled May the moon has seen
Since Anne -- attentive, diligent, aetat nine --
Puckering her young brow, read the stately phrases.
Sampler and book are here without a stain --
Only Anne Everard lies beneath the daisies;
Only Anne Everard will not come again.

Mary Webb (1881-1927), Poems and The Spring of Joy (Jonathan Cape 1928).

Mary Webb was born in Shropshire, and lived there most of her life. After her death, an edition of James Thomson's The Seasons was found in her library.  The signature "Anne Everard" appears on the front flyleaf of the book.

Stanley Gardiner (1887-1952), "Lamorna Valley, Evening"

Something written by Thomas Hardy in one of his notebooks comes to mind:

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."

Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978), page 10.

F. T. Prince uses Hardy's observation as the basis for a poem:

          Last Poem

Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince (1912-2003), Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

I find it surprising that Prince chooses to use the word "common" in the second line, rather than Hardy's "prosaic":  the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is what makes Hardy's thought so touching and beautiful.  Still, Prince's poem is lovely as well.

We are all "prosaic," we are all "common," aren't we?  But, when I read of Anne Everard, Tamsin Trenoweth, Claudia of Rome, and the nun Jutei, I feel compelled to say: Not entirely.

There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen," in Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

If I may, this is for Anne Everard, Tamsin Trenoweth, Claudia of Rome, and the nun Jutei.

            Parta Quies

Good-night; ensured release,
Imperishable peace,
     Have these for yours,
While sea abides, and land,
And earth's foundations stand,
     And heaven endures.

When earth's foundations flee,
Nor sky nor land nor sea
     At all is found,
Content you, let them burn:
It is not your concern;
     Sleep on, sleep sound.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

Lewis Fry (1832-1921), "View from Clifton Hill"

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Autumn

Each year, a moment arrives when we say to ourselves:  Autumn is here.  That moment varies from year to year:  the angle or the color of the sunlight; the appearance of the first red or yellow spray of leaves near the top of a tree; a warm breeze with a single chill thread running through it; the look of swaying bough-shadows on the dry grass of a meadow; beside a path, a bush with unknown, deep red berries.  The list goes on.

                              Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed.  Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way.  My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002).

Cecil Gordon Lawson (1849-1882), "The Minister's Garden" (1882)

This moment of recognition does not move in step with the autumnal equinox.  In my experience, it can occur any time from the middle of August onward.  It happened for me this past week.  On a late afternoon, I was walking down a slight slope towards a wide yellow field.  A tree-lined road (closed to vehicles) ran through the middle of the field.  The sky was deep blue, mottled with white clouds.  I suddenly noticed that the entire scene, despite its clarity and brightness, was suffused in a golden, soft-edged light that came from everywhere and nowhere.  Autumn had arrived.

     By the Pool at the Third Rosses

I heard the sighing of the reeds
In the grey pool in the green land,
The sea-wind in the long reeds sighing
Between the green hill and the sand.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Day after day, night after night;
I heard the whirring wild ducks flying,
I saw the sea-gull's wheeling flight.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
Night after night, day after day,
And I forgot old age, and dying,
And youth that loves, and love's decay.

I heard the sighing of the reeds
At noontide and at evening,
And some old dream I had forgotten
I seemed to be remembering.

I hear the sighing of the reeds:
Is it in vain, is it in vain
That some old peace I had forgotten
Is crying to come back again?

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).

Despite its references to "the green land" and "the green hill," "By the Pool at the Third Rosses" has always felt like an autumn poem to me. "The sighing of the reeds," of course.  Not to mention the melancholy and wistfulness of my beloved poets of the 1890s.

According to a note by Symons, the poem was written at Rosses Point, Ireland, on September 1, 1896.  One hundred and twenty-two years ago today.  Imagine that.  It seems like only yesterday.

Cecil Gordon Lawson, "The Hop-Fields of England" (1874)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Quiet

We live in a puritanical time.  The current version of puritanism, like all that have come before it, is a matter of faith.  The faith in this case is entirely secular and political in character.  The world of the modern puritan is not a numinous world.

As is the case with puritans in all times and in all places, the new puritans know what is best for the unenlightened (in other words, the rest of us).  They believe that they have attained access to certain truths that must be acknowledged and accepted by all unbelievers. (The new puritanism is a religion of sorts, albeit one without gods.) To believe otherwise is to be a heretic.

In today's version of puritanism, everything is the opposite of what it seems.  Our puritans think of themselves as being "tolerant" and "open-minded."  In fact, they are the most intolerant and closed-minded set of people you will ever come across.  The new puritans are fond of describing themselves as "progressives."  Beware:  within the heart of every self-styled "progressive" lies a totalitarian.

The following poem first appeared here back in January of 2015. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

               Smuggler

Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

The poem was written in June of 1964.  Fifty-odd years later, the "bulging words" are the same or similar.  The smugglers have changed.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

Ah, well, we each make our own way in "the vale of Soul-making," don't we?  The allure of puritanism is understandable:  it offers simplicity, certainty, and a sense of superiority.  All false, but hard to resist.  Puritans find it difficult to sit still and be silent.

     The quietness;
A chestnut leaf sinks
     Through the clear water.

Shōhaku (1649-1722) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 231.

But the false assurances of simplicity, certainty, and superiority come at a grievous cost:  puritanism leaves out of account both the individual human being and the World itself.  The world of the puritan is without truth and beauty, without poetry.  It is a joyless world.

"Quiet stream, with all its eddies, and the moonlight playing on them, quiet as if they were Ideas in the divine mind anterior to the Creation."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (March or April, 1802), in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Entry 1154.

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "Heart of Exmoor"

The world of the puritan is a clamorous, harsh, and distracting world. Moreover, I imagine that keeping up with the ever-expanding list of perceived injustices in that world, and then fashioning perceived solutions to those injustices, must be exhausting.  I much prefer to remain a heretic.

"The trout leaping in the Sunshine spreads on the bottom of the River concentric Circles of Light."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (May or June 1802), Ibid, Entry 1200.

Over the past week, the sunlight has begun to take on its angled, honey-gold autumn cast.  The first red leaves have appeared. Something is afoot.  As always, there is too much going on in the World for me to pay any mind to the puritans and their preoccupations.

     A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
     In the bed of the stream.

Onitsura (1660-1738) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 253.

How each of us awakens in -- and to -- the World is a miraculous and ineffable mystery.  A mystery as unique as each of our souls.  This awakening is a matter between our soul, alone, and the World.

"The Whale followed by Waves -- I would glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout!"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (1795 or 1796), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Entry 54.

John Downie (1871-1945), "A Perthshire Stream"

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Particulars

As I am wont to do, one recent sunny afternoon I stood beneath a tree (a big-leaf maple), looking upward, marveling at the infinite, ever-changing, ever-revolving greenness of it all.  Fortunately, I am both simple-minded and easily pleased.  Thus, this sort of activity is more than enough to keep me occupied during my remaining time above ground.

               A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The 'tree, of many, one,'
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962).

The quotation in line 5 ("tree, of many, one") comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":

          But there's a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
          The Pansy at my feet
          Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Does Blunden intend "A Short Ode" to be a response to Wordsworth's "Ode"?  Perhaps, if we attend closely to the beautiful particulars of the World, we shall discover that "the visionary gleam" has not fled, never flees.

Hubert Lindsay Wellington (1879-1967)
"Overhanging Tree, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

One way to enter the greenness of the overarching canopy is to begin at the outer edge, focusing upon a single leaf, then moving your way slowly inward and upward.  Leaf by leaf, spray by spray, bough by bough, until you reach the sky.  "Each in its soleness, then and there,/Created one; that one, creation's care."

On the other hand, there is something to be said for simply losing oneself (or one's Self) in the trembling green constellations overhead. The key to this approach is to avoid all thinking.  As I have said here on more than one occasion:  thinking is highly overrated.  The more thinking, the less feeling.  The more thinking, the less beauty and truth.

                              Values

Till darkness lays a hand on these gray eyes
And out of man my ghost is sent alone,
It is my chance to know that force and size
Are nothing but by answered undertone.
No beauty even of absolute perfection
Dominates here -- the glance, the pause, the guess
Must be my amulets of resurrection;
Raindrops may murder, lightnings may caress.

There I was tortured, but I cannot grieve;
There crowned and palaced -- visibles deceive.
That storm of belfried cities in my mind
Leaves me my vespers cool and eglantined.
From love's wide-flowering mountain-side I chose
This sprig of green, in which an angel shows.

Edmund Blunden, Near and Far (Cobden-Sanderson 1929).

William Ranken (1881-1941), "Beech Trees, Carmichael"

In the meantime, as you gaze upward, one or more of the following events may occur.  Two sparrows may circle the tree trunk, hopping through the dry summer grass as they peck at the ground, twittering. A crow may caw from one of the tall pine trees swaying on the other side of the field.  A single brown leaf, perfectly symmetrical, may drift down and land at your feet.  (Not a portent.  Merely a leaf that falls through the sunlight of an August afternoon.)

"Each most rare."

                Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence:  see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Choice or Chance (Cobden-Sanderson 1934).

George Allsopp (b. 1911), "Wharfdale Landscape"

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How To Live, Part Twenty-Eight: Waiting and Watching

As I'm sure is the case with many of you, I have certain poems floating around inside me to which I return again and again: touchstones and talismans that have emerged from the winnowing of life and time.  A trail of breadcrumbs disappearing into -- or leading the way out of -- a dark forest.  Beauty and truth that, if we let them, find their way into an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

"To those who value it, the one thing certain is that poetry, like wisdom, is a singularly rare thing, that the price of it is above rubies, and that it cannot be gotten for gold.  Once given potential life in words, it need never die; an ardent delight in it, and of this, too, there are many degrees, may be not only the joy of childhood, but a supreme and inexhaustible solace to the aged.  So long as we ourselves remain faithful, it will never prove false."

Walter de la Mare, Poetry in Prose: Warton Lecture on English Poetry, British Academy, 1935 (Oxford University Press 1935), page 42.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Inner Harbour, Abbey Slip" (1921)

Thus, one evening last week I suddenly and unaccountably felt the urge to return to this:

          Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (Macmillan 1925).

"Waiting Both" is the opening poem in a collection that was published in Hardy's 85th year.  I suppose that some (for instance, modern ironists) may find it to be of no interest, or, at best, quaint. Not I.  I may not think of this poem every day, but I know it is constantly with me, and has been since the day I first read it.  This is how poetry works.

"What [poets] say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty.  But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)

Still, one must be careful.  Poetry is not life.  Each of us knows this, of course.  "He has read well who has learnt that there is more to read outside books than in them."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for November 29, 1875, in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 110.

Mind you, "Waiting Both" articulates a beautiful truth.  As do all those other poems that are talismans and touchstones and breadcrumbs for us.  But they are nothing without the World.  "May. In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."  Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May of 1876, Ibid, page 112.

And so we wait.  And so we watch.  Enough to keep one busy for a lifetime.

waiting for what?
each day     each day
more fallen leaves pile up

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The World is a daily miracle of beautiful and inexhaustible particularity amidst beautiful and inexhaustible multiplicity.  There is no better place to bide one's time.

     On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Later Period (Columbia University Press 1976), page 27.

Stanhope Alexander Forbes
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, near Hayle" (1938)

Friday, July 13, 2018

Awake

This past week I spent an afternoon idyll in the emergency room of a local hospital, where I became acquainted with atrial fibrillation (also known, more familiarly, as "AFib").  New encounters of this sort are always salutary:  we should never take anything for granted.  One emerges from these episodes with a  freshened sense of gratitude.

How much time we have on our hands!  How little time we have on our hands!

The previous weekend I had read the following mysterious and wondrous poem.

     The Song of the Mad Prince

Who said, 'Peacock Pie'?
     The old King to the sparrow:
Who said, 'Crops are ripe'?
     Rust to the harrow:
Who said, 'Where sleeps she now?
     Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve's loveliness'? --
     That's what I said.

Who said, 'Ay, mum's the word'?
     Sexton to willow:
Who said, 'Green dusk for dreams,
     Moss for a pillow'?
Who said, 'All Time's delight
     Hath she for narrow bed;
Life's troubled bubble broken'? --
     That's what I said.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

Ah, well:  each of us a fluttering heart, a flickering soul.

David Murray (1849-1933), "Crofts on the Island of Lewis" (1921)

Later in the week, something floated up out of my past.  I hadn't thought of it for years.  I beg your forbearance for its presence here.  I offer it, not as poetry, but as an instance of how we meander our way through life, of how things vanish and then return.

                            Breathless

And then -- never a doubt -- that day shall come.
You think -- wrongly -- that you can "handle" it.
(As if all before has been "handled" well.)
But it will be the last thing you expect.

Oblique and aslant shall be its approach:
Without stealth, and with utter certainty.

How little we know!  It leaves you breathless.

sip (March, 2004).

Alex Kirk (1872-1950)
"Cranborne Chase, Dorset, a View towards Horton Tower" (1935)

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Beauty

When all is said and done, Keats is exactly right:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those two lines.  At the outset, there is a textual question as to whether the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks, or only the first clause: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  This question is related to the issue of whether the lines (or the first clause, depending upon where the quotation marks are placed) are spoken by the urn or by the poet. The predominant view is that the lines are spoken by the urn, and that the entire two lines should be placed within quotation marks.

The remainder of the spilt ink relates to the meaning of the two lines, both on their own, and within the context of the entire poem.  In her edition of Keats's poems, Miriam Allott summarizes the conflicting views as follows:

"Opinions about the meaning of the beauty-truth equivalent and its relevance to the rest of the poem can be roughly divided as follows: (1) philosophically defensible but of doubtful relevance ([John Middleton] Murry); (2) a 'pseudo-statement,' but emotionally relevant (I. A. Richards); (3) expressing the paradoxes in the poem and therefore dramatically appropriate ([Cleanth] Brooks); (4) meaningless and therefore a blemish (T. S. Eliot); (5) an over-simplification, but attempting a positive synthesis of the oppositions expressed in the poem (F. W. Bateson); (6) emotionally and intellectually relevant when properly understood, but 'the effort to see the thing as Keats did is too great to be undertaken with pleasure' ([William] Empson)."

Miriam Allott (editor), The Poems of John Keats (Longman 1970), page 538.

Well, yes, of course T. S. Eliot would say that the statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem."  In partial defense of Eliot (only partial) he follows up with a qualification of sorts:  "and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."  (T. S. Eliot, "Dante," in Selected Essays (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1950), page 231.)  As one who is fond of Eliot's poetry and his critical writings, I would respectfully suggest another possibility:  (1) Eliot fails to understand the statement and (2) the statement is true.

But I am not here to unwind all of this . . . humbug.  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my fundamental poetical precepts:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Moreover, I am simple-minded and credulous: hence, I take what Keats says at face value.  And what he says accords with my experience of the World and of life.  Nothing more needs to be said.

William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "Bodinnick, Fowey"

Enough of that digression.  Keats's lines appear in this post because they came to mind when I read a poem by Walter de la Mare a few days ago.  The monstrous and passionless existence (I shall not call it "life") that the lines have taken on in the hands of literary critics is nothing but a frolic and a detour (a combination of words I first heard in law school about 35 or so years ago, but which is apt when it comes to the tomfoolery of critics).

Here, then, is the poem that led me to think of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty":

     The Song of the Secret

Where is beauty?
          Gone, gone:
The cold winds have taken it
     With their faint moan;
The white stars have shaken it,
     Trembling down,
Into the pathless deeps of the sea:
          Gone, gone
     Is beauty from me.

The clear naked flower
     Is faded and dead;
The green-leafed willow,
     Drooping her head,
Whispers low to the shade
     Of her boughs in the stream,
          Sighing a beauty --
          Secret as dream.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

One of the many things I like about Walter de la Mare is that, unlike most 20th century poets, he was not afraid to use the word "beauty" in an unironic sense.  It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when "beauty" was a philosophical or a metaphysical concept, not merely an empty word from the worlds of advertising, movies, television, and music.  For example, early in his life, before he began his political career, Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  ("Sublime": another word that has lost all meaning in our time.)

Granted, "beauty" seems an ethereal, will-o'-the wisp thing in "The Song of the Secret," but that does not make it any less real.  Consider this:

"A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Another poet who has no qualms about using the word "beauty" is de la Mare's friend Edward Thomas.

                              Beauty

What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

In "Beauty," Thomas is unsparing in disclosing the despair and misery (melancholy is not a strong enough word) that dogged him throughout his life.  But he makes clear that the despair and misery are not the whole story.  We know this from the beautiful particulars of the World that appear in his poems.

Yet, although the beautiful particulars are pervasive in his poetry, there is a wraith-like figure beyond them that is ever out of Thomas's reach.  It is, for instance, the song of "The Unknown Bird":  "Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,/Nor could I ever make another hear. . . . As if the bird or I were in a dream./Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes/Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still/He sounded."  There is also the ambiguous female figure in "The Unknown":  "The simple lack/Of her is more to me/Than others' presence,/Whether life splendid be/Or utter black. . . . She is to be kissed/Only perhaps by me;/She may be seeking/Me and no other: she/May not exist."

This is the beauty "secret as dream" of which de la Mare speaks in "The Song of the Secret."  It is Jaccottet's elusive beauty:  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."

William Ratcliffe, "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

It is appropriate to give the last word to Keats:

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.

William Ratcliffe, "Old Cottage at Worth, Sussex" (1920)

Saturday, June 23, 2018

News

Ah, "news"!  What place should we give it in our lives?  I concede that it has some practical benefits.  For instance, it provides us with warnings of volcanic eruptions, approaching typhoons, and imminent tornadoes.  (Yet, in our day and age, even these warnings are likely to be given a political overlay of some sort.)

All in all, it is best to dispense with news entirely.  Paying attention to it drags us into the politicization of life that has been poisoning our culture (such as it is) for years, and which proceeds apace.  The internal editing required is not worth the time and effort.  Our souls were sent here on more important business.  Time is short.

               News

The people in the park
are not news:
they only go to prove
what everyone knows --
the sufficiency
of water and a few trees.

The people in the gallery
are not news either:
they are here for more trees
and the permanence of water
of various kinds:  everything
from the seastorm to spring rain.

Walking in the street,
we are not news, you and I,
nor is the street itself
in the first morning sun
which travels to us from so far out
sharpening each corner with its recognition.

News
wilting underfoot, news
always about to lose its savour,
the trees arch over the blown sheets
rain is reducing to a transparent blur
as if water with trees were alpha and omega.

Charles Tomlinson, The Vineyard Above the Sea (Carcanet 1999).

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947)
"The Harbour Window" (1910)

Here is my news for the week.  Patches of purple-pink and pink-white sweet peas have appeared in the meadows that slope down to the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  Beside the paths I walk, the blackberry bushes are blossoming:  countless five-petaled white stars. Tiny crab apples are growing on a solitary tree that stands beside a wide field.  On a windy day, the tall grass in the field tosses and sways like a sea.

                         No Newspapers

Where, to me, is the loss
     Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
     Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
     I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem was written in 1900.

Thomas Creswick (1811-1869) and Alfred Elmore (1815-1881)
"Dorothy Vernon's Doorway, Haddon Hall" (1865)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Voices

Yesterday evening, I sat listening to the birds chattering and singing outside the window, in the back garden.  There are so many worlds within the World!  Abiding before we arrive, abiding after we depart. A thought that brings with it a certain reassurance, and serenity.

                      Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 92.

Anthony Eyton (b. 1923), "Oak Wood"

As I have noted here in the past, I am always pleased to see the ant hills appear in the seams of the sidewalks in late spring.  Mere grains of sand, yes; but, still.  I feel the same way when I hear the sound of grasshoppers off in the tall grass of a meadow on a sunny afternoon in early summer.  Eternity resides in these renewals and recurrences.

     Grasshopper!
Be the keeper of the graveyard
     When I die.

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), p. xxvi.

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"