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"

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Poem

A poem that has moved us stays with us, and often returns of its own accord.  Long ago, I cannot remember when and where, I purchased a collection of poems titled Northern Light.  It is a pleasing book to hold in your hands:  black covers, six-and-a-half inches wide, ten inches long, thin (only 66 pages), and printed on better-than-average, deckle-edged paper.  There is a single poem on each page, surrounded by a great deal of open space.

The book was published in London in 1930.  The colophon on the reverse side of the title page states:  "275 copies only for sale have been printed of NORTHERN LIGHT.  Each copy has been signed by the Author."  Immediately beneath the colophon is a tiny, neat signature in light blue ink (from a nib, not a ball-point):  "L. A. G. Strong."  Leonard Alfred George Strong (1896-1958) belonged to that now nearly extinct species known as "the English man of letters."  In addition to poetry, he wrote novels, short stories, plays, biographies, and literary criticism.  I first came to know of him through A New Anthology of Modern Verse, 1920-1940, which he co-edited with C. Day Lewis.

There are several lovely poems in Northern Light.  But there is one that stands out for me, and to which I return, either in my mind or by revisiting the book.  It is a poem that has appeared here in the past.

                           Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Yesterday evening, I was in a wistful, vaguely unsettled mood, for no particular reason, internal or external.  Was it the vernal equinox, perhaps?  No.  Just a mood.  But I suddenly felt the need to read "Garramor Bay."  There you have it.

Dane Maw (1906-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Today

Today was sunny yet cool, a day of amber-yellow angled light and of tree shadows stretching across bright green fields.  Walking beneath the bare trees, looking up into the intricate branches set against the sky, I was brought up short by a sudden realization:  the six decades that I have been alive have led to this single instant, an instant in which I am walking at the point of my still unfolding existence, all of those 60-odd years trailing behind me, disappearing, on a brilliant day in early March.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village" (1939)

I claim no uniqueness for this moment of awareness.  But it did hit me with a fair amount of force.  There was nothing sorrowful or melancholic in what I felt.  If anything, the moment was one of exhilaration and peace.

A few moments later, a passage by Marcus Aurelius came to mind. Upon returning home, I found it:

"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).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Earlier this evening, a haiku by Kobayashi Issa returned to me:

     Under moon and flowers,
Forty-nine years
     Of fruitless wandering.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

Thus ends my report for today.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Havens

Around the middle of the week before last, I read this:

          Heaven-Haven
      A nun takes the veil

     I have desired to go
          Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
     And a few lilies blow.

     And I have asked to be
          Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
     And out of the swing of the sea.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

The poem's title may be an echo of the final line of George Herbert's "The Size":  "These seas are tears, and heav'n the haven."  Ibid, page 248.  "Blow" (line 4) is used in the sense of "to bloom" (a usage that, up until the 20th century, was common, but that has now, to our loss, nearly vanished).

The fragmentary beginnings of the poem appear in a notebook entry made by Hopkins in 1864 under the title "Rest."  Lesley Higgins (editor), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume III: Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks (Oxford University Press 2015), page 203.  Hopkins converted to Catholicism two years later. Four years after his conversion, he took his vows as a Jesuit novice.

These background details may be of interest, but it is best to leave well enough alone, isn't it?  "Heaven-Haven" speaks for itself.  Any further comment is superfluous.  Nay, destructive.

John Inchbold (1830-1888), "Anstey's Cove, Devon" (1854)

"Heaven-Haven" was still with me when, last weekend, I happened upon this:

The kind of place
     where the way a traveler's tracks
disappear in snow
     is something you get used to --
such a place is this world of ours.

Princess Shikishi (12th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 181.

Encountering Princess Shikishi's waka after reading "Heaven-Haven" was purely a matter of coincidence, but I always harbor the notion (an overly romantic notion, no doubt) that, when it comes to reading poetry, such coincidences are placed in our path for a reason.

By who or by what, you may ask.  I have no answer.  I could recur to this statement by Philippe Jaccottet, which appeared in my previous post:  "Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience:  the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 157.

On the other hand, perhaps a more commonplace (yet still miraculous) explanation suffices.

Kerria in bloom:
a leaf, a flower, a leaf,
a flower, a leaf.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 402.  The poem is a haiku.

A leaf, a flower, a leaf, a flower, a leaf.  And so it goes with each of the World's beautiful particulars.  Throughout each of the seasons. Throughout our life.  Each encounter a pure coincidence.  Or not.

John Inchbold, "A Study, in March" (1855)

Finally, a few days ago, I revisited this waka:

To a mountain village
     at nightfall on a spring day
          I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
     from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), Ibid, page 134.  Nōin was a Buddhist monk.

The poem brought me back full circle to "Heaven-Haven."  A monk-poet in 11th century Japan.  A poet and a nun in 19th century England.  The beauty of poetry -- of the World -- is of a piece, at all times and in all places.

John Inchbold, "Bolton Abbey" (1853)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mirrors, Glimmers, Glimpses

In this part of the world, one must learn to embrace greyness and inclemency.  Otherwise, you may find it difficult to venture beyond your doorstep.  You learn to adapt.  For instance, after living here a certain number of years, one day, without making a conscious decision to do so, you stop using umbrellas.  It just happens. Cumbersome things, after all.  A hat or a hood (or neither) will do.

But, beyond the minor practicalities, there is this:  the World has a way of providing us with compensations, however small and however fleeting.  If we fail to remain on the lookout for these compensations, all is lost, whether we abide at the Equator or in farthest Thule.

He who has lived in sunshine all day long,
               His happy eyes
From too much light defending,
               He cannot duly prize
One gleam of light at the day's ending.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem is untitled.  It was written in 1888.

"One gleam of light" may be all that we get, but it is more than enough.  A few days ago, while out for a walk, I saw the first tuft of blossoming crocuses -- pale purple -- next to the sidewalk.  The dark green shoots of daffodils have begun to emerge as well.  Unexpected compensations.  Enough to subsist upon.

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life.  Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said? Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Paysages avec Figures Absentes) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4.  In the original French text, the passage ends with the ellipses.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "February Afternoon"

In this matter of the World's freely-bestowed compensations, we should never forget the miraculous puddle.  I have sung the praises of puddles -- those World-reflecting wonders -- in the past, and I will do so again now.  At the beginning of last week, on my afternoon walk, I was marveling at how the beauty of bare branches set against a cloud-dappled blue sky becomes deeper, more profound, when seen on the surface of a humble puddle.  But that is not the end of it:  the beauty takes on yet a different aspect as you begin to walk.  All of the intricacy, color, and depth moves along with you, at your feet, as you pass beside the bright water -- an entire upside-down World in motion.

I thought of puddles when I came across these four lines later in the week:

Thou mirror that hast danced through such a world,
So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world,
That hast so much reflected, but, alas,
Retained so little in thy careless depths.

Matthew Arnold, fragment from "Lucretius," in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans, Green 1965), page 585.

Allott notes that this fragment echoes a passage in Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna":

          Hither and thither spins
          The wind-borne, mirroring soul,
          A thousand glimpses wins,
          And never sees a whole;
Looks once, and drives elsewhere, and leaves its last employ.

Matthew Arnold, "Empedocles on Etna," Act I, Scene II, lines 82-86, Ibid, page 159.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this image of the soul as a mirror. "Thou mirror that hast danced through such a world,/So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world" is indeed a lovely thought.  But, at the risk of oversimplifying (and/or misinterpreting) Arnold's point (which originates in his reading of the philosophical remnants of Empedocles), I wonder if he isn't being a bit too pessimistic about the soul's capabilities.  His vision of the soul as a mirror seems far too passive.  My limited experience with puddles suggests that some mirrors may "retain" (to use Arnold's word) a great deal of the World upon -- and beneath -- their surfaces.

John Aldridge, "The River Pant near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)

As the crocuses and the daffodils emerge, the flitting and twittering spirits arrive as well.  I recently noticed a single dove disappearing into a bush in the back garden.  I hope, as was the case last year, I will be hearing coos outside my window later this spring and through the summer.

Saturday afternoon, walking through the woods, I noticed that the bushes beside the paths have come into leaf.  (I hadn't noticed this earlier in the week.  I was no doubt inattentive.  On the other hand, these things sometimes happen in the space of a day, or overnight.) At the tip of each twig is a single leaf or a small, unfolding spray of leaves.  I was entranced by one bush in particular:  at the center of each green spray was a circle of tiny white blossoms, a cluster of bright yellow stamens at the heart of each blossom.

                                   The inward frame
Though slowly opening, opens every day
With process not unlike to that which cheers
A pensive Stranger, journeying at his leisure
Through some Helvetian dell, when low-hung mists
Break up, and are beginning to recede;
How pleased he is where thin and thinner grows
The veil, or where it parts at once, to spy
The dark pines thrusting forth their spiky heads;
To watch the spreading lawns with cattle grazed,
Then to be greeted by the scattered huts,
As they shine out; and see the streams whose murmur
Had soothed his ear while they were hidden:  how pleased
To have about him, which way e'er he goes,
Something on every side concealed from view,
In every quarter something visible,
Half-seen or wholly, lost and found again,
Alternate progress and impediment,
And yet a growing prospect in the main.

William Wordsworth, "Home at Grasmere," The Recluse, Part I, Book I, lines 472-490, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (University of Oxford Press 1949).

To combine Arnold and Wordsworth:  in "such a world,/So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world," "the inward frame/Though slowly opening, opens every day."  Glimpses and glimmers.

John Aldridge, "Roofing a New House"

Last night's sunset over Puget Sound brought to mind these lines: "the red, lurid wreckage of the sunset/Smoulders in smoky fire." (John Masefield, "On Eastnor Knoll.")  However, that is too strong a description:  it was more delicate than "lurid," more deep orange-pink than primary, burning red.  Still, "smoulders in smoky fire" rings true.

But more striking than the sunset was a large oval orange-pink-purple gleam that appeared out in the middle of the Sound after the sun had disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains.  There is surely a scientific explanation for why the pool of light appeared there when it did:  something about the sun's declining rays glancing off the clouds, et cetera.  Ah, well, there are always explanations, aren't there?  They take the life out of the World.

"Slanting Pillars of Light, like Ladders up to Heaven, their base always a field of vivid green Sunshine."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1577 (October, 1803).

We should attend to these glimmers and glimpses.  Who knows where they will lead us?

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience:  the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.
* * * * *
As I reflect on all this I begin to see nonetheless that the poetic experience does give me direction, at least towards a sense of the high, and this is because I am quite naturally led to see poetry as a glimpse of the Highest and to regard it in a sense (and why not?) as it has been regarded from its very beginnings, as a mirror of the heavens . . .
* * * * *
(So it would be possible to live without definite hopes, but not without help, with the thought -- so close to certainty -- that if there is a single hope, a single opening for man, it would not be refused to someone who had lived 'beneath this sky.')

(The highest hope would be that the whole sky were really a gaze.)"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne),  Landscapes with Absent Figures, pages 157 and 159.  The italics and the ellipses are in the original text.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How To Live, Part Twenty-Seven: Equanimity

I began this series of posts back in August of 2010.  I neglected to note at the outset of the series that I am completely unqualified to provide any advice on "How to Live."  I have never harbored, and will never harbor, any such presumption.  Hence, any advice that appears here is solely attributable to the poets and their poems.  I am merely the befuddled messenger.

A further disclaimer:  as I have stated in the past, I do not believe that the purpose of poetry is to edify.  A poet who sets out to write a poem aimed at teaching us something is doomed to failure.  Thus, for instance, that contradiction in terms known as "political poetry": a soi-disant "poem" that purports to instruct us on the rightness or wrongness of a political belief (left, right, or Martian) does not, under any circumstances, qualify as poetry.  Self-regarding propaganda, yes. Poetry, no.

That being said, we do read poetry for its Beauty and its Truth.  Well, at least I do, although I may be wholly misguided.  Accordingly, the poems that appear in this series are in the nature of memoranda to myself:  they are reminders of the possibilities that Beauty and Truth open up for us.

Here, then, is a bit of good advice about how to live:

                               Precept

Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

Charles Holmes (1868-1936), "Bude Canal" (1915)

Note that Reeves acknowledges that each of us does have "devious crooked corridors" and "halls of riot" within us.  Given that we are wont to hold overly flattering views of ourselves, the recognition that these corridors and halls exist is in itself an important first step.  But this is often a matter of one step forward, two steps back.  Still, most of us try to do our imperfect best.

And once I knew
A hasty man,
So small, so kind, and so perfunctory,
Of such an eager kindness
It flushed his little face with standing shame.

Wherever he came
He poured his alms into a single hand
That was full then empty.  He could not understand.
A foolish or a blessed blindness,
Saint or fool, a better man than you.

Edwin Muir, in Peter Butter (editor), The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies 1991).  The poem is untitled.  Muir wrote it in the final years of his life, and did not publish it during his lifetime.

Perfection is not in the cards for any of us, and the sooner we realize this the better.  "A foolish or a blessed blindness" that leads to the practice of kindness is certainly not a bad thing.  If nothing else, it suggests the presence of humility, which, it seems to me, is a good place from which to begin.

                         From the Latin (but not so pagan)

Blessed is he that has come to the heart of the world and is humble.
He shall stand alone; and beneath
His feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble
Of the hungry river of death.

Hilaire Belloc, Sonnets and Verse (Duckworth 1938).

Yes, "there will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  At least not yet.

Charles Holmes, "The Yellow Wall, Blackburn" (1932)

We live our lives in "the vale of Soul-making."  In that vale, exalted alpine heights and expansive seaside vistas -- and their wide perspectives -- are few and far between.  Most of our time passes in the manner of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, waning towards evening, half-lit.  And yet.  Just over a year before writing of "the vale of Soul-making," Keats wrote this:

"I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness -- I look not for it if it be not in the present hour -- nothing startles me beyond the Moment.  The setting sun will always set me to rights -- or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817, in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), page 38.

At the risk of making a tenuous connection, a statement made by my favorite mystic may be worth considering at this point:  "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).  An alternative translation is:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." (Translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness.)

What Keats and Wittgenstein have to say about living in the present moment is nothing new:  they are repeating wisdom that has been known in all places and at all times.  But this wisdom has to be learned anew by each soul that arrives here.  "Dwell[ing] in some decent corner of your being,/Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet" is, I think, an essential element of the learning process:  living in the present moment requires presence of mind.  Easier said than done, of course.

                         Rarities

Beauty, and grace, and wit are rare;
     And even intelligence:
But lovelier than hawthorn seen in May,
Or mistletoe berries on Innocent's Day
The face that, open as heaven, doth wear --
With kindness for its sunshine there --
     Good nature and good sense.

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

Charles Holmes, "A Warehouse" (1921)

I fear that I have floated too far off into the ether.  Let's face it: inhabiting the present moment on a consistent basis (even without adding "eternity" or "timelessness" into the mix) is not something that most of us are up to.  I know that I'm not.  But something short of that may be enough to bring us a measure of repose.

In this matter of Soul-making we need to proceed in a measured, attentive, and thoughtful fashion.  There are no short-cuts.  Wrong turns and dead-ends are common.  Thus, coming anywhere close to possessing a modicum of "good nature and good sense" is, as de la Mare observes, a rare accomplishment indeed.  Enough work to keep us busy for a lifetime, with no guarantee of success.  Moreover, none of us will ever be in a position to say of ourself that we possess "good nature and good sense."  How could we?  That is for others to decide.

Yet, if we "dwell in some decent corner of [our] being," and if we "come to the heart of the world and [are] humble," we may be headed in the right direction.  And if -- an enormous if -- we are patient, receptive, and fortunate, we may arrive at a place of serenity.

                 From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  Coleridge wrote the poem in 1907, the year in which she died (at the age of 45).

Charles Holmes, "Scholar Gipsy" (1917)