Saturday, July 18, 2020

Near and Far

I find this to be an accurate and reasonable assessment of the present age:

"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."

And this, it seems to me, is a sound response to our distempered and unseemly contemporary world:

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

I suspect that many of you will have noticed that the two quoted passages come, not from our own time, but from the past.  The first passage is 218 years old: it appears in William Wordsworth's preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads.  The second passage is 117 years old: it is from George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which was published in 1903.  Hence, pick your truism. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Or, if you prefer: There is nothing new under the sun.

Roger Fry (1886-1934), "Village in the Valley" (1926)

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses:/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream." Yesterday, while driving in my car, I heard Glen Campbell sing "Gentle on My Mind."  1967.  Ah, well.  All those years.  I was born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Of history and its events, what remains for me is the death of President Kennedy (our elementary school principal announced it over the public address system on a sunny afternoon), the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and 9/11.  Unexpectedly hearing "Gentle on My Mind" on the car radio on an ordinary July afternoon.  How many times have I heard that song?  Where was I each time I heard it?  Who was I with?  What has become of them?  One song.  An entire lifetime returns.  History vanishes.

        Rising from My Sickbed

Alone and ill, I was confined to bed
But my dreams kept returning to my old haunts
This morning, at last, I managed to rise and
     stand beside the river
An endless trail of peach petals
     drifting down the stream

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel), in Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings (University of Hawai'i Press 1996), page 123.

James Prowett (1865-1946), "Cruive Dykes, Craigforth" 

Is it inevitably the case that, as one grows older, the world of human affairs takes on an alien aspect, while the World of beautiful particulars becomes ever more hospitable?  On the other hand, one might arrive at that feeling at a young age, and find its truth confirmed by life.  Either way, there is indeed something to be said for possessing one's soul in quiet, for living "in thoughtful stillness," for having no part in the "increasing clamour." 

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
     In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
     Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
     Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
     And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601), in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (Oxford University Press 1932).  The poem is untitled.

Percy Horton (1897-1970), "A Corner of Ambleside" (1943)

14 comments:

Thomas Parker said...

Increasingly I find myself withdrawing from the chaotic world of "current events" (which I was once deeply interested in but which now causes me an almost physical pain) and living a life that is more and more private. I suppose some might see me as an ostrich, but I don't think of it as "head in the sand" stuff at all. Rather, I'm simply doing what I have to do to protect and nurture the only life that I have any real power and authority over - mine.

Thirty years ago I read Walden and didn't much like it, but these days I find myself agreeing with Thoreau more each day. I wrote this passage down and keep it by my bed:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear."

That last phrase is the clincher, isn't it? How much of our time do we spend living what is not life? How much of the machinery of our society is built to compel us to live that false existence? It has always been so, I know (just ask Anna Karenina) but I think it's probably worse now than ever in our lifetimes.

I do believe that a flourishing life can still be lived though, even if it must be more "interior" than perhaps it was before. It's worth whatever effort it takes, because life is indeed so dear.

Nige said...

A wonderful post, Stephen – and so apt for our times.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for your thoughtful, and thought-provoking, observations. I agree with everything you say. I have long been weary of the politicization of our "culture" (such as it is), and the bad faith, dishonesty, and, most importantly, absence of basic human decency associated with that politicization have only worsened over time. I will have nothing to do with it, and I am sure many others feel the same way. You are exactly right: "the machinery of our society is built to compel us to live that false existence." And I agree that this has always been so: Wordsworth and Thoreau knew it, as have many others. One has to leave it behind. As you so movingly put it: "It's worth whatever effort it takes, because life is indeed so dear."

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: Thank you very much for your kind words. I have been enjoying, and receiving solace from, your own observations on "our times" over these past months, so I'll take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your articulate wisdom, which has been a welcome relief from the madness. The butterflies pay no mind to any of this, do they? Best wishes to you and your loved ones.

Todo Boffin said...

Thank you, Stephen. I fancy you've captured the current feelings of many. I came across W.S. Merwin's poem Finding a Teacher recently. Poet and poem were unknown to me. It's a strange piece which I'm sure I don't understand but it may say something about quiet, patient contemplation and companionship being the most useful solutions in a life where the important questions are both inarticulable and unanswerable.

In the woods I came on an old friend fishing
and I asked him a question
and he said Wait

fish were rising in the deep stream
but his line was not stirring
but I waited
it was a question about the sun

about my two eyes
my ears my mouth
my heart the earth with its four seasons
my feet where I was standing
where I was going

it slipped through my hands
as though it were water
into the river
it flowed under the trees
it sank under hulls far away
and was gone without me
then where I stood night fell

I no longer knew what to ask
I could tell that his line had no hook
I understood that I was to stay and eat with him

Stephen Pentz said...

Todo Boffin: Thank you very much for those thoughts, and for sharing the poem by W. S. Merwin, which is new to me.

Well, I confess that I do hope that I have "captured the current feelings of many." Not, mind you, to demonstrate that I am "right," but for the sake of the common good (if I am not being too presumptuous). There are times when one feels like a medieval monk in a dark cell beside a single guttering candle, attempting to preserve what remains for future generations. (Again, I am likely being too presumptuous, too dramatic.) In any case, one likes to feel that one is not alone, and comments like yours (and Mr. Parker's and Nige's) are comforting to receive.

The poem by Merwin is lovely, isn't it? I have only a limited familiarity with his poetry, and mostly I have dipped into his translations of Buson's haiku. I agree that it is "a strange piece," and I also agree with your overall impression of the poem. In reading it, it occurred to me that Merwin's practice of Zen Buddhism may provide a clue to what happens in the poem. Not as an "explanation" or an "explication," but in terms of the experience he relates. It puts me in mind of puzzling passages from Chuang Tzu, and of poems by Chinese and Japanese poets whose works are grounded in a long cultural history of Taoism and Buddhism. Silence, stillness, and patience. But I should stop, as I am getting too far afield. It is a lovely poem. Enough said.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for visiting. Take care.

John Maruskin said...

I'm a fan of Merwin, too, and you're right, most of his poetry, after the first four books is influenced by Zen and Taoism. His last book, Garden Time, is an incredible evocation of becoming timeless with age. The last poem in the book,

The Present

As they were leaving the garden
one of the angels bent down to them and whispered

I am to give you this
as you are leaving the garden

I do not know what it is
or what it is for
what you will do with it

you will not be able to keep it
but you will not be able

to keep anything
yet they both reached at once

for the present
and when their hands met

they laughed


After that digression...what I really wanted to add here is this line from one of young Beatrix Potter's letters to Charles McIntosh, the Perthshire Naturalist: "modern habits and machines are not calculated to bring out individuality or the study of Natural History." Thanks as always. It's sunflower season here. The goldfinches are wonderful.

Ruth said...

I enjoyed your July to April 2020 selection of poems, thoughts, and paintings this morning. It is marvelous to see so many paintings and poems that show the delicate beauty in the world.
Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you for sharing the poem by Merwin, which is lovely (and new to me). Regarding the influence of Buddhism and Taoism on his poetry, I seem to recall that he was a student of Robert Aitken in Hawaii. As you likely know, Aitken wrote a fine book titled A Zen Wave: Bashō's Haiku and Zen. Merwin wrote an introduction to a later re-printing of it.

Thank you as well for the quote from Beatrix Potter, which I haven't seen before. I looked into Charles McIntosh: he was an interesting fellow. He and Potter shared a fondness for fungi, I learned. He sent her specimens from Scotland; she sent him paintings.

I envy you your sunflowers and goldfinches. Midsummer. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ruth: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm pleased you liked the posts. We have been in need of "the delicate beauty in the world" over these past several months, haven't we? I don't know what I would have done without it.

Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.

Alan Boyd said...

Over the year or so that I have been reading your posts I have reached the stage where I look forward to the next one appearing. Today’s was particularly welcome. Thank you, and long may you continue to produce these gems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Boyd: Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. I'm delighted you found your way here, and I greatly appreciate your return visits.

I'm pleased you liked the latest post. The passages by Wordsworth and Gissing and the poem by Devereux are long-time touchstones for me, and they have seemed particularly apt in recent months. I felt the need to see them together in one place. And then, out of nowhere, Glen Campbell and Ryōkan appeared as unexpected gifts.

Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.

Maggie Emm said...

Dear Stephen, It's my birthday tomorrow and what a wonderful gift this was - you have put it in a nutshell. You and the poets and all the good folks who add to your writing - this is exactly how I feel as I get older. I have a year to go till my retirement and I am very much looking forward to dwelling mostly in the world of Beautiful Particulars, with the hips and haws and bramble-berries.
Your writing about your memories reminds me of a passage from the novel 'The Sheltering Sky' by Paul Bowles:
"We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."
I find it beautifully haunting, and a reminder to dwell in the present - yet hard not to wish this last year away!

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Happy birthday! (Although I fear I am a day late by now, for which I apologize.)

Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing the marvelous passage by Paul Bowles, which is new to me. How lovely, and how true, his words are. As you say, the passage is indeed "beautifully haunting, and a reminder to dwell in the present." I am back to reading Japanese waka and haiku at the moment, and they send the same message: "dwell in the present." Marcus Aurelius tells us the same thing (as do many men and women of wisdom through the ages): "Let your every action, word, and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment." (Translated by Robin Hard.) You are exactly right: the goal is to "dwell mostly in the world of Beautiful Particulars, with the hips and haws and bramble-berries." (The latter of which are beginning to ripen at the edges of the fields through which I walk.)

Again, happy birthday and best wishes. Take care.