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) 

8 comments:

Maggie Emm said...

When April comes It triggers lyrics in my head (Magnolia, you sweet thing...) - and I always have to sing to myself the Simon and Garfunkel song:

April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May she will stay
Resting in my arms again
June she'll change her tune
In restless walks she'll prowl the night
July she will fly
And give no warning to her flight
August die she must
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September I remember
A love once new has now grown old

Which carries with it that sweet melancholy that spring brings to us as we move into the last decades of life.
Enjoy this spring, Stephen!

fridayam said...

I have many times meant to reply to one of your always beautiful posts, and now it is long overdue. I do not know if you get many responses to your thoughtful and gorgeously illustrated posts, but I for one always look forward to them and read them with appreciation. As an Englishman, I am especially appreciative of your use of the neglected paintings of our heritage and, as a poet myself, of the careful consideration you bring to each poem you quote. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: "April come she will": it has been quite a while since I heard that: lovely. It fits perfectly in this context. Thank you very much for sharing it. It's wonderful how these songs and poems stay deep within us, and then return, isn't it? ("Magnolia, you sweet thing . . ." is new to me: thank you for sharing it as well. I found it on the internet: very nice.)

"Sweet melancholy" is a fine way to describe the emotions evoked by the arriving and departing seasons at a certain point in life. It is perhaps akin to what I have described here in the past as "bittersweet wistfulness" or "wistful bittersweetness." Nothing mournful in any of these feelings. Just the way it is.

It's good to hear from you again. As always, thank you very visiting. I wish you a lovely spring as well.

Stephen Pentz said...

fridayam: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I have to take it on faith that now and then people will arrive here by happenstance and, if I am fortunate, return because the poems and the paintings resonate for them as they do for me (in our own individual ways, of course). So it is gratifying and humbling to hear from you.

Thank you for your comment about the paintings: I do think that a great deal of British art (particularly of the late 19th century and early to mid-20th century) is "neglected." I am trying, in my small way, to keep it alive.

Thank you again for your thoughts. I hope you will return soon.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, Life has been rather hectic for the past couple of months with preparation for exams and now we are in the midst of them until mid-June. Your posts are a haven of tranquility, somehow seeming outside time and though I may not always have the space or time to respond as I would like, I always read and savour them.

Wet Evening in April is exquisite. The sense of melancholy may be something we all know but it is inextricably entwined with that moment of joy, which even though we may know it a briefly is unforgettable and inerasable.

I agree with both yourself and fridayam regarding the inclusion of British paintings of late 19th and early 20th century. They are far too often overlooked. Thank you for including them.

We have a week away in Norfolk beginning this weekend, so my wife and I are very much looking forward to good walks in the country and along the coast, the peace of the countryside and waking to the chorus of birdsong outside the cottage at dawn.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Please accept my apologies for the far too lengthy delay in responding to your thoughts. As I indicated in my most recent post, I have been on a two-week road trip, and was away from the blog during that time, as well as in the week prior to the trip. I apologize for being so remiss.

In the meantime, you have been away on your trip to Norfolk, which I hope was wonderful. I know how fond you are of that part of England, and I trust you enjoyed its peace and quiet. The thought of waking to birdsong is lovely. While out on an afternoon walk earlier this week, I suddenly realized that I was surrounded on all sides by the sound of birds singing. They are always there, aren't they? But I often miss them through inattention.

Thank you for your comments about British painting from that era: I came to it via John Nash, Paul Nash, and Eric Ravilious, but the advent of the internet has given me a marvelous education about the treasures of that time. But I do need to come over to the UK to see some of these paintings in person!

As ever, thank you very much for taking the time to comment, which I always greatly appreciate. And, again, I apologize for this delayed response.

Ambrose Gilson said...

I am really taken by that quote from Coleridge. a favourite topic amongst my Buddhist friends: is enlightenment static, beyond time and change, or something intrinsically dynamic, even if not in a way we can comprehend. I think this quotation throws considerable light on the issue...

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Gilson: It is a marvelous passage, isn't it? Although it immediately struck me, I can't say that I have fully understood it: I glimpse the truth of it, and then it disappears. Although Coleridge presents us with a truth wonderfully articulated in words, I suspect that it is a truth that is ultimately beyond words. (I am no doubt being obtuse!)

On another note, reading Coleridge's notebooks can be a bit of a slog at times, but it is the prospect of coming across treasures like this that keeps one going: you never know what is around the corner.

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