Monday, January 11, 2021


As I have remarked here in the past, the feeling that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket is a timeless feature of human nature. The world has always been, and will always be, going to Hell in a hand-basket.  Still, one pauses: after all, there was someone living an ordinary life in Rome when it was sacked by the barbarians.  It's a matter of timing.  You never know what you're in for.

                                 To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

Thus wrote MacNeice sixty-four years ago.  He was not wrong. Moreover, as I have noted here on several occasions, Wordsworth was not wrong in his preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

"[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."  

Hence, the theme is not new.  Only the technology changes.  So here we are again.  But all is not lost.  Some of us continue to love, and attempt to preserve, what Wordsworth and MacNeice loved (and feared for).  Yet at times one does think of the Roman living contentedly, going about his or her daily business, seeing dust on the horizon, having never heard of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals.

William Rothenstein (1872-1945)
"Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (c. 1925)

I try to keep things in perspective, but since 1968 (the year of the White Album, a memorable World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and nothing else good) I have been of the opinion that the world (as distinguished from the World) is indeed going to Hell in a hand-basket.  However, don't mind me: I suspect I had the same feeling as I emerged bawling from the womb, gasping for air, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Withal, come what may, I have remained quite cheerful.  I simply step outside and take a look around at the World and its beautiful particulars.  How can one be anything but astonished and grateful?

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company 1928).

William Rothenstein, "St Martin's Summer"

Nevertheless, one cannot help but take notice of certain things.  Of things that have permanently vanished.  Of irreplaceable things, now broken, that appear to be irreparable.  There's no help for it.  One does notice.  Is this merely a product of growing older, of feeling that it is time to leave the stage, an outdated relic?  Perhaps.  But that denizen of Rome haunts me.

Suddenly, another Roman arrives to remind me:

"If, I say, you separate from the governing principle within you those things which are, as it were, appended to it by its vehement passions, and the times past and future, you make yourself like the firm World of Empedocles, A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy.  Be solicitous only to live well for the present; and you may go on till death, to spend what remains of life, with tranquillity, with true dignity, and complacence with the divinity within you."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Life is ever a matter of attention and gratitude, don't you think?

   On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2 (Columbia University Press  1976), page 27.

William Rothenstein, "Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (1933)


John Maruskin said...

Stephen, My latest haiku. Written 1/8/21

I pledge allegiance
to chickadees sipping at
the backyard birdbath

"A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy." That may well become my motto for 2021.

Thanks, John

PS You don't have to post my comments. I always think of these as emails to you.

gretchenjoanna said...

That is a helpful compilation of poetry that expresses my heart's desire, to continue going about what is actually my business, and take comfort and strength as needed from that ever present calm of heaven. Thank you for the good messages from all over.

Maggie Emm said...

Happy New Year Stephen - looking forward to sharing the World with you for another year!

Nikki said...

You have a way of making me take the long view as well as appreciating the beauty to be found in the present moment. Quite an achievement.

Stephen Pentz said...

gretchenjoanna: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

I'm pleased you liked the post. I like your thought: ". . . to continue going about what is actually my business." Wise counsel to us all. Attend to one's own garden. Coincidentally, I think it fits well with the excerpt from the book by Jean-Claude Larchet which you posted on your blog a few days ago, which was marvelous, and so full of insight about where we find ourselves now. I was unaware of him: thank you very much for leading me to him and his work.

I hope that all is well. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you. Happy New Year to you as well. I wish you all the best in the coming year. As ever, thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you very much for the kind words. But all the credit goes to the poets, the philosophers, and the artists who shake me by the shoulders and point out where to look -- something I fail at each day, until they wake me up.

As always, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again. Best wishes for the new year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: I have taken note of your comment about not having to post your comments. However, I did want to thank you for sharing your haiku, as well as share it with other readers, since it goes well here. It also put me in mind of the following poem by Norman MacCaig:


My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I'll die
for its independence.

By the way, you are free to contact me by email, if you wish. (Although I can be an unreliable email correspondent, I'm always happy to hear from readers.)

As always, thank you for stopping by.