Wednesday, August 5, 2020

What Matters

Over the course of the marvelous year we have been enjoying, various thoughts by Marcus Aurelius have been returning to me.  As ever, the good Emperor has been there before we have, and knows a thing or two.  For instance: "How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at any thing which happens in life!"  (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 13, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), p. 285.)  Jeremy Collier, in his always piquant early-18th century style, renders the passage thus: "How unacquainted is that Man with the World, and how ridiculous does he appear, that makes a wonder of any thing he meets with here?" (Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701), page 229.) 

He's right, of course.  Natural calamity and human miscreance and malfeasance are par for the course.  And I'm sure that even in the Emperor's time reports of disaster and human folly were spread far and wide in bad faith, ignorance, and self-interest by the supercilious newsmongers of the day (even in the absence of such hallmarks of Human Progress and Enlightenment as Twitter).

In the meantime, bad news or not, the creators and preservers of that which is important proceed quietly about their business.  

                                   The Just

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 449.
Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window"

In the autumn of 1923, Ivor Gurney remained involuntarily confined in an asylum, as he had been since September of 1922.  "In Hell I buried a score-depth, writing verse pages."  ("Hell's Prayer," in Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996), page 64.)  If you ponder it for long, his life will break your heart.  Yet, as sad, desperate, miserable, and bedeviled as we was, he was at times more lucid and acute than any of us can hope to be.  In or around October of 1923, he wrote this:

                           The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Trefoil . . . . hedge sparrow . . . . the stars on the edge of night.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid, page 46.  The punctuation (or lack of it) and the ellipses are in the original typescript.  The poem was not published in his lifetime.

Perhaps it is not my place to say so, but I don't think Ivor Gurney would want us to break our hearts in pity for him.  Rather, he would want us to read his poems (and listen to his music).  They tell us what matters.  They are what matters.
Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)


Lee Hanson said...

Another lovely post. I shall now try to find out more about Gurney's life. Your inclusion of Eurich paintings was also a delight. He was born in Bradford my home city and attended the school I teach at. On Tuesday of this week I drove along that very same Road to Grassington and can vouch that it remains beautiful and unchanged. A critical monograph about him is due out this autumn. Details here:

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: It's good to hear from you again. I'm pleased to know you are still stopping by. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

My memory may be deceiving me, but I seem to recall that you once sent me a photo (or a link to a photo) of a lovely painting by Eurich that is at your school. As you have no doubt noticed, I am quite fond of his work, and he has appeared here a number of times over the years. I'm delighted to hear about the upcoming book. He deserves the attention. Thank you for the link: I will be purchasing the book. (Lund Humphries is a new publishing house to me, and several of their other books are tempting as well.)

What a wonderful thing it is that you travel on "The Road to Grassington"! I'm happy to hear that "it remains beautiful and unchanged."

As for Ivor Gurney, reading about him, as I suggested, can be a sad experience, but it is worth the effort. You are likely aware of Michael Hurd's The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney. I also recommend Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty (2008) by Pamela Blevins.

Again, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting. Take care.

John Ashton said...

How wonderful to read Ivor Gurney’s The Escape this morning as I sat with my cup of tea savouring the quiet. It is one of my favourite poems, and reading it prompted me to take my copy of Gurney’s Collected Poems from the shelf and turn to The Dearness of Common Things, another favourite,and that led me to Norman MacCaig’s, An ordinary Day, another firm favourite.
We can never be reminded too often how easy it is to overlook the ordinary and extraordinary beauties of this world, each of which increase our joy in the moment, if we take time to notice.
Walking in a local park a few days ago something drew my attention to an oak tree I have passed many times. I noticed the shape of the trunk and lower branches, the sound of the leaves,it was as if I saw it for the first time, and realised how amazing it was. Such small moments of attention really do lead to the increasing of life. They are what truly matter.

Thomas Parker said...

It's so easy to forget that life is good, isn't it? We can get so wrapped up both in "big" problems of the world and the thousand inevitable obstacles we ourselves face that we lose sight of the myriad little things that make up so much of the daily fabric of our lives - a good meal, a good joke, a cool breeze, a good book, a kind word or a loving touch from a person who matters to us. All of these seemingly slight things (that actually weigh so much) all say the same thing - life is good. We just foolishly think the "big" things matter more. Vladimir Nabokov said,

"I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy. I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good."

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing those lovely thoughts. Coincidentally, I too think of Gurney's "Common Things" whenever I return to "The Escape." So many of his poems are made up of such loving lists of the World's beauties, aren't they? Think of all his poems about Gloucestershire and its villages and places. "Encounters" (one of my favorites) is a fine example: "One comes across the strangest things in walks . . ." This is followed by a marvelous catalogue, which ends with this: "And the wonder of them never and never can become diminished." Dear Gurney, how he loved the World. And to be afflicted with madness, locked up. It always moves me to think of Helen Thomas' visit to him in the asylum (I'm sure you know the story): she brought a map of Gloucestershire (one of Edward's?), thinking it might help stimulate conversation, and he brightened and became excited as he touched the place names on the map.

That's how one should live one's life, isn't it? Your description of the oak is a perfect example. "Such small moments of attention really do lead to the increasing of life." I agree completely. What a beautiful statement by Gurney: "I believe in the increasing of life . . ."

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: That is a wonderful meditation on what is important in life. Thank you very much. Your thoughts and Mr. Ashton's thoughts go together well. Yes, the "big" things ultimately really aren't that big, are they? I'm reminded of something fine you said in your comment to my previous post: "How much of the machinery of our society is built to compel us to live that false existence?" Exactly.

And thank you for sharing the wonderful passage from Nabokov, which is new to me. The last sentence is beautiful. It echoes, and complements perfectly, Gurney, Borges, Mr. Ashton, and you.

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

John Lassiter said...

Let me add my thanks to you for including Ivor Gurney’s “The Escape” in this post and for urging us not only to read his poems but also to listen to his music. Please allow me to suggest that the place to start is with what is probably his best known song, “Sleep.” It is a heartbreaking setting of a poem by John Fletcher, one of Gurney’s set of Five Elizabethan Songs, composed right before the First World War when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. Recordings of it abound on YouTube, but my favorite is a beautiful performance by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, found here: (Also recommended because it provides the full text of the song: “Come, sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving / Lock me in delight awhile . . .”)

You, Stephen, must know Gurney’s setting of your “old stand-by” (as you call it), Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”: (Is that a cherry tree outside Eurich’s window?) As one of the many composers who set poems from A Shropshire Lad to music, Gurney features prominently in Peter Parker’s wonderful book Housman Country: Into the Heart of England (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). In a chapter devoted to music, Parker provides a good brief overview of Gurney’s life, poetry, and music (pp. 255-266), suitable perhaps for someone who doesn’t want to tackle a full biography.

Finally, I too thought of the story Helen Thomas told about her visit with Gurney while he was hospitalized at Dartford, which Parker quotes at the end of the section on Gurney mentioned above. With the help of that map, she says, he “spent the hour in revisiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood, and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharpened and more actual for his heightened intensity.” It struck me that her visit must have taken place around the time he wrote “The Escape” (1923). In reading the poem, I sense that “heightened intensity” of vision, and I imagine it was in that landscape of his mind’s eye that he saw “Trefoil....hedge sparrow....the stars on the edge of night.”

Again, thanks, and please know that First Known When Lost has been and continues to be my lifeline during these distracted times.

John Lassiter

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Lassiter: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of Gurney. I confess that my exposure to his music is quite limited, so I appreciate the recommendations of, and links to, "Sleep" and "Loveliest of trees . . ." In doing some further searching after listening to the settings, I came across a lovely video interview of Sarah Connolly talking movingly of Gurney in connection with the release of her album "A Walk with Ivor Gurney."

One can see why Fletcher's "Sleep" would have meant a great deal to Gurney: "Though but a shadow, but a sliding,/Let me know some little joy! . . . O let my joys have some abiding!" As you say: heartbreaking. Heartbreaking as well is Gurney's meeting with Helen Thomas. (By the way, I wrote about it in a post titled "Mangels" on November 29, 2013.) But how happy his time with her must have made him, if only for a short while. I agree with your observation about "Trefoil . . . hedge sparrow . . . the stars on the edge of night." Whenever I return to the poem, I imagine him writing it, and having those memories of Gloucestershire come back to him. Such a beautiful line.

Thank you as well for the recommendation of Parker's book. As you know, I'm fond of Housman, and I've been meaning to get a copy, but have never gotten around to it. Your mentioning of it will spur me into action.

Finally, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. That's very nice of you to say. As I have said here in the past, I am merely the messenger for the poets and their poems, the painters and their paintings. I have relied upon Ivor Gurney and others to help me through this year, and my posts are a reflection of my gratitude to them. I feel that they are always present, but their presence has been particularly important this year.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, and for visiting. Take care.

Esther said...

I see you got a well-deserved compliment on Nigeness today!

I greatly enjoyed "Trefoil...hedge sparrow....the stars on the edge of night," The Just, and your musings on the importance of "proceeding quietly about our business." Thomas Parker's Nabokov quote also dovetailed beautifully, and I was happy to learn that the Road to Grassington is as lovely as ever.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

I've never forgotten "Trefoil . . . hedge sparrow . . . the stars on the edge of night" since the first time I read it, years ago. What can one say about it? Beautiful. I, too, was delighted to hear from Mr. Hanson about the Road to Grassington. Wonderful to know. And I love the passage from Nabokov shared by Mr. Parker. "This capacity to wonder at trifles . . ." That final sentence is perfect.

Yes, I saw the nice compliment by NIge, and, as you have probably already seen, I thanked him in a comment to his post (as well as sharing two poems by de la Mare).

As always, thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. You'll be hearing from me again in a moment, when I respond to the comment you made on my most recent post!

Nikki said...

The Just is the perfect antidote for the chaos we live in right now. I'm going to recommend it on my own blog. Thanks so much!

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: I'm pleased you liked "The Just." It is a wonderful poem, isn't it? And it does seem apt at this moment (although it always is).

Thank you very much for stopping by again.