Thursday, January 17, 2019

Elsewhere

I am conservative by nature.  But please take note, dear readers:  that is not a political statement.  I have no interest whatsoever in the acts or omissions of presidents, prime ministers, premiers, princes, or other potentates.  I feel the same way about utopian political schemes of any stripe, together with their mad inventors, purveyors, and true believers.  We all know the ultimate end of chimerical, delusive, and disingenuous dream-worlds.

No, my conservatism is a matter of temperament.  The modern world has always seemed to me to be an unsatisfactory place.  Hence, I often find myself mourning the passing of, and harboring nostalgia for, human things that vanished either before my time on earth began or during my short (and ever-shortening) stay here.

This, for instance:

                    Then

Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty,
     A hundred years ago,
All through the night with lantern bright
     The Watch trudged to and fro.
And little boys tucked snug abed
     Would wake from dreams to hear --
"Two o' the morning by the clock,
     And the stars a-shining clear!"
Or, when across the chimney-tops
     Screamed shrill a North-east gale,
A faint and shaken voice would shout,
     "Three!  and a storm of hail!"

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

When I read this, I cannot help but feel that the human world has taken a grievous and irremediable wrong turn.

Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961)
"From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Some of you (perhaps nearly all of you) may say:  "But what of the innumerable human accomplishments over the past millennia, the advances in knowledge, and the progress humanity has made?"  Yes, I am indeed quite pleased with the state of modern plumbing, thank you.  I am also fond of physicians and other health care professionals, and their craft.  And I am delighted with the promptness and efficiency of pizza delivery services.  I can come up with other examples as well, if pressed.  But my unease persists.

                  On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (Geoffrey Bles 1964).

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

So, there you have it:  I long for watchmen and bell-men, for human cries and bell-ringing far off in the deep of night.  I'm afraid I shall never change.  But that's just me.

                  The Bell-man

From noise of Scare-fires rest ye free,
From Murders Benedicitie.
From all mischances, that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night:
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep.
Past one aclock, and almost two,
My Masters all, Good day to you.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume I (Oxford University Press 2013).

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Companion

A few days ago, a big-leaf maple that I have walked past, and beneath, for nearly 24 years fell in a wind storm.  A friend who follows the same paths as I do came across it the morning after the storm.  I received a photograph, and felt hollowed out, breathless.

I didn't have the heart to go see it right away, but yesterday, toward sunset, I paid it a visit.  There it was:  laid out upon the wide green meadow, its roots open to the air, its trunk shattered and splintered, bits and pieces of it scattered about.  Silence.  Stillness.  In all those years I had never known it to be so silent and so still.  Ah, friend, I foolishly took it for granted you would always be standing there.  The thought of this never occurred to me.

                            Trees

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word --
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also -- though there has never been
A critical tree -- about the nature of things.

Howard Nemerov, Mirrors and Windows (University of Chicago Press 1958).

Am I being "sentimental"?  Was it "just" a tree?  Well, the sadness of loss comes as it comes.

Farewell, companion.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"