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"