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"

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Arrival

The World is reticent.  It keeps its own counsel.  And yet it is capable of communicating directly with us in an instant.  Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but I believe we have all experienced moments that have brought us, however briefly, close to the heart of the World.

                Islands

These new songs that I sing
     Were islands in the sea
That never missed a spring,
     No, nor a century.

A starry voyager,
     I to these islands come
Knowing not by what star
     I am at last come home.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).  The poem was originally published in Thirty-One Poems (John G. Wilson 1922).

These moments of communication do not involve the use of words. Words are a merely human peculiarity -- a necessary and beautiful peculiarity.  How else could we survive our short space of time here? But the feeling of arriving at the heart of the World is, alas and amen (to borrow from Walter de la Mare), beyond words.

William Bradley Lamond (1857-1924), "Forest Track"

Still, poets do their best to capture these rare moments with the tools that are available to humans.  Failure is inevitable.  But that is no reason for the poets to stop trying.  Or for us to cavil when their efforts fall short.  Words are not enough.  We can only be grateful for the approximate manifestations of Beauty and Truth that the poets bring to us.

As a context for the work of poets, and, more broadly, for how we place ourselves in the World on a daily basis, consider this:

"Proposition 6.52.  We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.  Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

"6.521.  The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

"(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

"6.522.  There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).  The italics appear in the original text.

Wittgenstein's term "the sense of life" (in German, "der Sinn des Lebens") is a lovely way of describing what we may experience during one of those moments when the World communicates with us.  And, although science-enamored, ironic moderns may not like it, "mystical" is an entirely appropriate word to use when contemplating the possibility of arriving at a place where "the sense of life" becomes clear to us.

In the meantime, the poets, on our behalf, do their best to articulate those "things that cannot be put into words."

                           Infinity

This lonely hill was ever dear to me,
And this green hedge, that hides so large a part
Of the remote horizon from my view.
But as I sit and gaze, my mind conceives
Unending spaces, silences unearthly,
And deepest peace, wherein the heart almost
Draws nigh to fear.  And as I hear the wind
Rustling among the branches, I compare
That everlasting silence with this sound:
Eternity is mine, and all past ages,
And this age living still, with all its noise.
So in immensity my thought is drowned,
And sweet it is to founder in this sea.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by Iris Origo), in Iris Origo, The Vagabond Path (Chatto & Windus 1972), page 182.

Leopardi's "silences unearthly" and "everlasting silence" bring to mind Wittgenstein's final proposition in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

William Bradley Lamond, "A Coastal Village"

At times, there is nothing to be said.  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words."  As human beings who traffic in language, this is hard for us to imagine.  But I would suggest that finding our way to the heart of the World requires the abandonment of certain things upon which we habitually rely.  Words, for instance.  Perhaps even more.

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry in May of 1954, in Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 1.

Easier said than done.  I certainly would never claim to have attained the states of which Jaccottet and Wittgenstein speak.  At the most, fleeting glimmers and glimpses.  Inklings.  But what they say rings true to me.  I still hope to stumble upon the heart of the World.  For now, the poets keep me headed in the right direction.

                 Arrival

Not conscious
       that you have been seeking
              suddenly
       you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
              dust free
       with no road out
but the one you came in by.

              A bird chimes
       from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
       you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
       as you are, a traveller
              with the moon's halo
       above him, who has arrived
       after long journeying where he
              began, catching this
       one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (Macmillan 1983).

William Bradley Lamond, "Farm Scene"

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Life

On my walk yesterday afternoon (a clear, warm day, with a brisk wind), I came across a dead mole lying on its back at the side of the path.  He or she was a small, dark-brown thing, about eight inches long, its pinkish-white, fleshy front paws open to the sky.  It was those tiny, outspread paws that particularly touched me.

We were in the shade beneath the rustling leaves and swaying boughs of an avenue of trees, a bright canopy of blue and yellow and green flickering overhead, a patchwork of light and shadow moving on the ground.  Birdsong surrounded us, near and far.

That's all.

                  A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

William Birch (1895-1968)
"Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham, Essex"

Monday, May 14, 2018

Time

Please accept my apologies for the silence, dear readers:  I have been on a two-week road trip, from which I have now returned.  I can report that all is well in this beautiful country:  spacious skies, purple mountain majesties, fruited plains, an ocean white with foam.  And, on top of all that, how can one not love a country that has seen fit to establish a James Dean Memorial Junction?  (Where California 46, curving away toward the live oak-dotted hills, the sea, and the sunset, meets California 41.)

Purely by happenstance, my trip included a visit to the university from which I graduated 40 years ago this year:  a campus located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in Santa Barbara.  I had no madeleine moment.  However, I did idly muse:  Which is better (or worse):  to say that 40 years have passed or to say that four decades have passed?  

                    Arriving in Lo-yang Again

Those years, I was a green-youthed wanderer;
today I come again, a white-haired old man.
From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,
and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (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 335.

Robert Fowler (1853-1926), "Knaresborough"

Four decades, forty years:  six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Time is what it is.  But the mere fact of that much distance is enough to give one pause.  Yet there are no grounds for regret or lamentation. After all, I am here to see that distance:  something that ought not to be taken for granted.  Gratitude is the appropriate response.

Still, passing through that changed yet unchanged place, I did wonder about a now-vanished young wight, all melancholy and expectation.  What has become of him?

Parthenophil is lost, and I would see him;
For he is like to something I remember
A great while since, a long, long time ago.

John Ford, The Lover's Melancholy, Act IV, Scene 3 (1628), in Iris Origo, The Vagabond Path (Chatto & Windus 1972), page 239.

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "A Summer Day on the Solway"

When I arrived home yesterday, I could smell the lilacs (white and pale purple) in the garden as I got out of the car.  On my walk this afternoon, I discovered that, while I was away, spring arrived here in earnest.  "Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  Forty years, four decades.  Gone.  Ever-present.

             Ah! Sun-flower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789), in David Erdman (editor), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (University of California Press 1982).

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Monday, April 23, 2018

Passing. Past. Perennial.

The time has come, dear readers, to return to my "April poem."  It is part of a group which includes my May poem ("The Trees" by Philip Larkin), my August poem ("A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" by Wallace Stevens), and my November poem ("The Region November" by Stevens), each of which reappears here annually at its appointed time.  I beg your indulgence for asking you to accompany me on these pilgrimages.  Think of them as stepping stones across the year.

                    Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in Kavanagh's Weekly on April 19, 1952.

A small and beautiful thing.  The less said, the better.

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

As I noted here a few years ago, I feel a sense of serenity when I contemplate the fact that the seasons will continue to come and go long after I have turned to dust.

Since late March I have been spending time with the poems in The Greek Anthology.  Recently, I came across this:

The world is fleeting; all things pass away;
Or is it we that pass and they that stay?

Lucian (120-200 A. D.) (translated by Walter Leaf), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938).

In one of his notebooks, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:

"The quiet circle in which Change and Permanence co-exist, not by combination or juxtaposition, but by an absolute annihilation of difference/column of smoke, the fountains before St Peter's, waterfalls/God! -- Change without loss -- change by a perpetual growth, that [at] once constitutes & annihilates change.  [T]he past, & the future included in the Present//oh! it is aweful."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (April or May, 1806) in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 2: 1804-1808 (Pantheon Books 1961), Entry 2832.

The italics and the slashes appear in the original text.  Given that Coleridge was in Italy at the time the entry was made, "the fountains before St Peter's" likely refers to the fountains in St Peter's Square in Rome.  Coleridge's use of the spelling "aweful" was not uncommon in his time.  The spelling provides a reminder that "awful" means "awe-inspiring," with one sense being "solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic."  Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition 1989).  Of course, in our age the word usually means "causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling."  Ibid.  I am inclined to think that Coleridge was using "aweful" in the former sense.  But this is only a guess.

For me, "Wet Evening in April" embodies a feeling of permanence in the midst of unceasing change.  I know the melancholy of which Kavanagh speaks.  We all do.  As have all those who have come before us.  As will all those who will come after as.  The birds singing in the wet trees on an April evening accompany us all.

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

But melancholy is not the whole of it.  For instance, when it comes to the birds of April, and of spring, we should remember Ben Jonson's translation of a fragment of Sappho:  "The dear good angel of the spring,/The nightingale."  (Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, Act II, Scene VI, in H. T. Wharton, Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation (John Lane 1907), page 96.)

Kavanagh knows this as well.  Thus, he brings us from April into May:

       Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems.  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.

"Consider the grass growing/As it grew last year and the year before."  Never-ending, with us or without us.

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring. And All Else.

The poems that move us the most have an inexpressible mystery at their heart.  This is a dogmatic proposition that I cannot hope to defend on a rational basis.  It is a corollary to one of my two laws of poetry (which long-time -- and much-appreciated! -- readers of this blog may recall):  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (For those who may be interested, my second law is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)

With those platitudinous truisms out of the way, let us consider, for instance, this:

            A Song for a Parting

                            I.
Flora will pass from firth to firth;
Duty must draw, and vows must bind.
Flora will sail half round the earth,
Yet will she leave some grace behind.

                            II.
Waft her, on Faith, from friend to friend,
Make her a saint in some far isle;
Yet will we keep, till memories end,
Something that once was Flora's smile.

William Cory (1823-1892), Ionica (Third Edition; edited by A. C. Benson) (George Allen 1905).  The poem originally appeared in the 1891 edition of Ionica.

William Cory is best known for his translation of a poem by Callimachus (c. 310 - c. 240 BC).  Callimachus's poem is found in The Greek Anthology.  Cory's translation, which has appeared here in the past, begins:  "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,/They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed." It concludes:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take." "Thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales" refers to Heraclitus's poems.

Who, or what, is "Flora"?  The Roman goddess of flowers and of spring?  Or is she a real person whose identity is cloaked in an evocative alias?  Or neither?  I have no idea.  Yet the poem still beguiles me, for it is a beautiful thing.  Flora is Flora.  Nothing more need be said.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

As lovely and welcome as the arrival of spring is, I have lately found myself regretting the coming disappearance of the bare branches of the trees as the leaves emerge.  As one ages, it seems that life and the World take on a more elegiac cast.  I say this without a trace of melancholy, complaint, or foreboding.  The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year, with a beauty that continually unfolds, without end.  This no doubt has something to do with a quickening awareness of the evanescence of all things.  There is no getting around it:  time is short.  Yet an elegy need not be a lament.

And so I never tire of looking up at the breathtaking intricacy of interlacing empty branches against the sky, in any weather.  But particularly when, beyond the branches, white castles of cloud travel across the blue.  Nor will the shadows of those same branches spread out at my feet on a sunny day ever cease to be a source of wonder.

"A Song for a Parting."  Exactly.

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Beginning

When I looked out the front window on Saturday morning, I saw a few dozen sailboats out on Puget Sound.  The spring racing season has begun.  The sails, spread across the water from north to south, were a lovely, spirit-lifting sight.  Another version of Wordsworth's daffodils:  "a crowd, a host . . . fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

An annual confirmation of renewal, of beginning anew.  One feels that a page has been turned.

                                Kinsale

The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1985).

Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)

To the west, beyond the water and the sails, the peaks of the Olympic Mountains towered and gleamed, covered with a winter's worth of snow, their slopes mottled with shifting cloud shadows.  Everything was in its place.  A spring day can give one the feeling of having arrived safely home.  To begin again.

     The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first seasonal 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea-mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow-mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the hills of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"