Saturday, September 18, 2021

No, Thank You

Day after day, modern "civilization" casts its flotsam and jetsam upon our shores.  There is no help for it.  Each of us maintains our own inventory of which pieces of detritus have caught our attention of late, or over the course of a lifetime.  The arrivals will never cease: "everything that can be imagined is bound to be realized at least once -- everything that mankind is capable of conceiving, it seems compelled to do."  (Saul Bellow, "Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence," in Saul Bellow, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction (edited by Benjamin Taylor) (Viking 2015), page 407.)  

Bellow's assertion cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Human nature harbors a boundless capacity for both good and evil.  Who knows which of the two will appear next, and in what form?  Caught up in the daily distraction (the latest political and media "crisis"), we are encouraged to bounce back and forth between hope and dread, anxiously awaiting "news."  This is no way to live.

Nearly every day I walk past a small round meadow, about fifty feet wide, which is surrounded on all sides by tall pines.  A single young maple stands near the center of the circle of grass and wildflowers. Each year I watch the maple change through the seasons, out there alone in the open.  Who knows what will happen to it?  It will likely outlive me, which is a comfort.  We each go on in our own way.

Alternative worlds are available to us.  Worlds free of flotsam and jetsam.  I have recently been spending time with poems set to music in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Another world (not without its own good and evil, of course), but one which feels seemlier and nobler than the one in which we now find ourselves.  In the songs, one comes upon lines such as these:

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 1967), page 48. The eight lines are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  Ibid, page 683.

What shall it be: Bedlam, or a world in which a poet forever unknown to us wrote of "constant Penelope"?

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The Elizabethan era may indeed be a different world, but I was pleased to encounter these lines, which are timeless, in one of the songbooks:

The love of change hath changed the world throughout;
     And what is counted good but that is strange?
New things wax old, old new, all turns about,
     And all things change except the love of change.
Yet find I not that love of change in me,
But as I am so will I always be.

Anonymous, in Richard Carlton, Madrigals to Fine Voices (1601), Ibid, page 77.  As is the case with many of the songs from the period, the identity of the poet is not known.

As one who is conservative in temperament (a temperament confirmed by six decades of watching the world), it is gratifying to discover a kindred soul from four centuries ago.  The lamenters of change are always with us, aren't they?  Mind you, the conservatism of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary politics, which are of no interest to me.

"Yet find I not that love of change in me" (a lovely line) in turn brings this to mind:

     The Metropolitan Underground Railway

Here were a goodly place wherein to die; --
     Grown latterly to sudden change averse,
All violent contrasts fain avoid would I
     On passing from this world into a worse.

William Watson (1858-1935), Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature (Gilbert Walmsley 1884).

I concede that the Underground is no doubt a marvelous thing. Having once lived in Tokyo, I recognize the convenience and efficiency of subways and train lines.  But I sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the poem.  "Grown latterly to sudden change averse."  Yes.  A time comes when one feels prepared to quietly and permanently exit the wearisome world of change.

Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)

But I feel I've lost the thread.  The flotsam and jetsam of the modern world and aversion to change are ultimately of no moment.  As always, one should attend to one's soul.  Where does one start?  Best to return to the solitary maple tree in the clearing among the pines. Everything begins and ends with a single beautiful particular.

A quiet bell sounds --
and reveals a village
waiting for the moon.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University 1987), page 96.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)


Thomas Parker said...

I once enjoyed being fairly informed and engaged with the "worldly world" around me (politics, entertainment, current events etc.) but over the past two decades (as I passed the forty year mark) I have largely disengaged. Such is the world's clamor and imposition that I have to be active about it; I have to discipline myself to a degree of isolation - though I'm hardly a monk! I don't have a cellphone, for instance, and I have seen this simple refusal progress from a mild eccentricity to now being something that people literally cannot comprehend; folks look at me as if I were a Neanderthal skinning a rabbit with his teeth. I rather enjoy it.

George Gissing said something that I have taken to heart:

"Keep apart, keep apart, and preserve one's soul alive — that is the teaching for the day. It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within the world. A glimpse of the morning or evening sky will give the right note, and then we must make what music we can."

GretchenJoanna said...

"Everything begins and ends with a single beautiful particular."

And this one thing will help us see through all the flotsam and jetsam, and attend to our souls: "The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light."

May we be strengthened to receive the Light!

John Satterberg said...

What a lovely posting ... thank you.

Forti Radici said...

Can only say that I completely (if that's possible) agree with what you have written here. I live in Asolo, surrounded by the past and although professionally involved in the "world", my faith is in humanity which is frankly, more those who have gone before us than...

Forti Radici said...

Agree completely. I always appreciate your writing, quotes and pictures of BTW, just tried to make a comment. disappeared....

Esther said...

"Constant Penelope" brings to mind the final line of Edna St. Vincent Millay's An Ancient Gesture, in which she contrasts the mimed tears of Ulysses with those of "Penelope, who really cried."

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: My experience has been similar to yours. It is a cliché, but it is true: "life is too short." I wholly agree that, in order to "disengage," one has "to be active about it," and has "to discipline [one]self to a degree of isolation." Well said. For instance, every Sunday I receive an automatic message on my iPhone informing me of the average daily amount of time I spent using the phone during the past week. I am always appalled at my weakness: why didn't I spend all of that time walking, reading, or doing something else of value? (Speaking of which, congratulations on not having a cellphone. I cannot match your strength of will in that regard. Although it did take me a long time to move from my antiquated flip-phone to an iPhone, and I often received bemused comments about my backwardness.)

The passage from Gissing is wonderful, isn't it? I encountered it a few years ago on the late, lamented Graveyard Masonry blog (maintained by Andrew Rickard, who can still be found at his Obolus Press website), and I entered it in my commonplace book at that time. (As I'm sure you know, a similar spirit can be found in Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which is a favorite of mine.) Thank you for reminding me of it. "It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within the world." Perfect.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

GretchenJoanna: That's a lovely thought. It fits perfectly here. Thank you so much for sharing it.

After reading your comment, and the words you quote, a poem by Walter de la Mare which I read a few weeks ago came to mind. I realize that the poem is not directly tied to the scriptural source and context of what you have shared, but perhaps de la Mare, in his own way, is moving in a similar sphere:


O strange devices that alone divide
The seër from the seen --
The very highway of earth's pomp and pride
That lies between
The traveller and the cheating, sweet delight
Of where he longs to be,
But which, bound hand and foot, he, close on night,
Can only see.
(Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (1918).)

As ever, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Satterberg: Thank you very much for your kind words. And thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Forti Radici: Blogger can be difficult to work with when it comes to posting comments. As you indicate, some of your text appears to have been lost. I have posted both of your partial comments in order to piece together your thoughts.

First, thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog. Second, I'm pleased to hear that we appear to be in agreement with respect to the general subject matter of the post. I completely agree with your statement "My faith is in humanity." In my zeal to point out my unease about the modern world, I neglected to make clear that I did not intend to make a blanket condemnation of humanity. I am certainly in no position to do that. Your comment provides a necessary corrective to what I failed to say.

Finally, I envy you: based upon what I found on the internet, Asolo looks like a beautiful place. As you say, you are indeed "surrounded by the past" in a lovely and wonderful way. It must be inspiring.

Again, I'm sorry for the difficulties you had in posting your comments, but I thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting, both of which I greatly appreciate.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: The poem is new to me, so I found it on the internet: wonderful. Thank you very much for sharing it. Yes, wily Odysseus, in contrast with long-suffering Penelope. The poem complements the eight lines of "Constant Penelope" perfectly. For instance: "Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold" and Millay's "And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light . . ." Very nice.

Thank you again for sharing it. You have been providing me with a fine introduction to Millay's poetry over time. Thank you for that as well. I need to explore her work further.

Take care.

Bruce said...

Keats praised the acting of Edward Kean in "King Lear." Why he did so, I find interesting. He said that Kean was never concerned with the play as a whole but was an actor who was always in thrall to the acting he was doing at the moment. He, so to speak, became Lear, and the audience saw Lear as a man at the moment and not the Lear of the entire play. Keats thought that poet must be the same: consumed by the moment. He thought Shakespeare exemplified what Keats called "negative capability'; that is, of identifying completely with his characters, content to accept the mysteries and uncertainties of life, by subduing his ego. We, in fact, can tell little about Shakespeare from his writings.

The true poet is always, in a way anonymous and completely in the moment: the nightingale is singing now; we are seeing the Grecian urn now; we are sitting easily and watching without any distress the last few oozings of autumn. Nothing must escape his eye. Keats thought poetry was the way to discover beauty, the sublime moment, though he never confused poetry with life.

When you take your walk, you are completely in the present, and if you find beauty of profundity or sublimity, you find it in the most common of phenomena: the tree, the skies, the scudding the clouds, a gibbous moon visible in the sky, the soft voice of the wind. Nothing escapes you on your walk. You are not waiting for an avatar to descend and introduce you to preternatural beauty: you find it in the most common things, that solitary tree you watch as the faithful seasons come and go.

After Keats died, Joseph Severn, who watched over Keats in his last days, said this about the young poet:

Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the under-response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind . . .and the wayfaring of the clouds: even the features and gestures of passing tramps, the colour of one woman's hair, the smile on a child's face, the furtive animalism below the deceptive humanity in many of these vagrants, even the hats, clothes, shoes, wherever these conveyed the remotest hint as to the real self of the wearer.


Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz--I saw a photo recently of a Siberian reindeer herder receiving a Covid vaccine injection. I wonder what he knows about the news of the day, whether consequential, trivial, indifferent, inane, or otherwise. I suppose his world is centered around his work, his family and whatever small pleasures he enjoys and particulars he finds. Doubtless, he is someone Tolstoy would write about.

I aim, successfully and unsuccessfully, to wear the world like a loose garment. The world is what it is and not as I would have it. As poet Donald Hall has it, "The world is everything that is the case/Now stop your blubbering and wash your face."

It is easy to fall victim to despair of one's fellow humans and of oneself. I often return to these lines from Solzhenitsyn:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil."

Let us examine our hearts so that the "bridgehead of good is retained.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Those are wise and wonderful thoughts. Thank you very much for sharing them. We can learn a great deal from Keats, can't we? Your observations, and Severn's passage (which I hadn't seen before -- thank you for sharing it), get to the heart of the matter. I no doubt refer to this too often, but one comes back to Keats' beautiful thought in his letter to his brother: "Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making'." It seems to me that he certainly lived the truth of this statement. We should all attempt to do the same. A daily struggle.

I greatly appreciate your comment about my walks, but I must (in good humor) raise a dissenting thought. You say: "Nothing escapes you on your walk." That's very nice of you to say. However, on the contrary, each time I go for a walk I feel that everything has escaped me! I always feel that I have utterly failed to pay proper attention to the World that I have just walked through, as my mind continued to hum unceasingly with useless day-to-day thoughts, despite my efforts to stop their flow. But sometimes I am fortunate enough to have the World make an appearance through my own fog of distraction.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing your perspective on these matters. You're right: the world is as it is, not as we would have it. Not even a Siberian reindeer herder can avoid its presence entirely. The quote you share from Solzhenitsyn (which is new to me) is wonderful. I agree with you that a wise course of action is to attempt to retain "one small bridgehead of good." This may fall within my reference to attending to one's own soul, as well as within Keats' "vale of Soul-making."

Thank you very much for stopping by. I hope that all is well.

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