Showing posts with label Christina Rossetti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christina Rossetti. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Way Leads On"

The notion of life as a journey is an ancient and beguiling one.  It has led to truisms such as "life is a journey, not a destination."  But, as I recently noted, truisms tend to be true.  It is all in how the thing is said, isn't it?

               The Way

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It's lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I'll make here my place,
(The road runs on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

Edwin Muir, The Labyrinth (1949).

Muir's life was something of an archetypal journey:  a movement from the seemingly timeless farms and sea of the Orkney Islands into the dispiriting heart of the 20th century -- first Glasgow, then lengthy stays in pre-Second World War Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and in post-War Eastern Europe.  It is no wonder that his poetry is marked by recurrent images of journeys and exiles:  literal and figurative, external and internal, with an underlying sense of the irremediable loss of something that cannot be quite articulated.

"Time wakens a longing more poignant than all the longings caused by the division of lovers in space, for there is no road back into its country.  Our bodies were not made for that journey; only the imagination can venture upon it; and the setting out, the road, and the arrival:  all is imagination."

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (The Hogarth Press 1954), page 224.

Thomas Hennell, "The Guest House, Cerne Abbas" (c. 1940)

From Christina Rossetti, here is another approach to the matter.  The poem has appeared here before, but it is worth a return visit.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
     Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
     From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
     A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
     You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
     Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
     They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
     Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
     Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

Thomas Hennell, "The Avenue, Bucklebury" (c. 1940)

Of course, our journey may be undertaken while staying in one place.

                              The Question

Will you, sometime, who have sought so long and seek
Still in the slowly darkening hunting ground,
Catch sight some ordinary month or week
Of that strange quarry you scarcely thought you sought --
Yourself, the gatherer gathered, the finder found,
The buyer, who would buy all, in bounty bought --
And perch in pride on the princely hand, at home,
And there, the long hunt over, rest and roam?

Edwin Muir, The Narrow Place (1943).

Muir's thoughts are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's well-known lines:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets (1943).

Thomas Hennell, "A View at Ridley" (c. 1940)

Finally, a poem by Edwin Muir's fellow Orcadian Robert Rendall (1898-1967) seems apt.

                      Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (1957).

Thomas Hennell, "The Beech Avenue, Lasham, Hampshire" (c. 1941)

Monday, April 21, 2014


This is a postscript to my post earlier this month about "Things."  It takes its cue from the final two lines of Jorge Luis Borges's poem of that name (which appeared in the post):

They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.

"Well, of course!" most of us would say.  But it is a sobering thought nonetheless.  Off we go into the ether, leaving all these things behind.  I won't presume to invest them with life.  But I cannot help but think that they continue to carry with them some trace of those who have departed.

Evan Charlton (1904-1984), "Hotel Garden"


Like a dream recurring
this house where trees crowd in
by the bend of a stream
pampas whispering in the rain;
through darkling rooms
press beautiful people
and avid fingers
are turning over and over
the delicate riches of old neighbours.

'Not friends, no, not friends,
or we wouldn't be here.
They have gone away now
(we mean they are dead)
leaving behind them
these Venetian lustres,
thick ropes of amber,
snuff boxes, netsukes, cream jugs, miniatures,
and that little French clock.
These delectable morsels
we coveted whenever we dined
at this dull cold house
can be Ours now, Ours. . . .'

'But the books, alas, are stained
and have been read too often'
(maybe far into the night
assuaging tears dropped down on them
that would explain the pity of it)
'they are no use now to Us
nor to anyone.'

Joan Barton (1908-1986), A House Under Old Sarum: New and Selected Poems (Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets 1981).

I have nothing against estate sales.  But when I attend one I feel that I am intruding.  I understand that the erstwhile owners are "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over."  But I feel their lives hovering about the objects on display.  Not in a spooky way, but in a bittersweet way.

And then the thought arrives:  So this is what it comes to.  These things. The thought comes without condescension (believe me), for I know that it will be exactly the same for me one day:  a few objects on a card table.

Evan Charlton, "The Intruder"

             In an Auction Room

How many deaths and partings spilled
this jumble in an upper room;
and every chair or mirror filled
with elbowing and smell of lives:
the gloom
of this tall wardrobe stopped the sun
entering a home; the great brass bed
stood in its throne-room, and its springs
and shining arms are crammed like mines
with regal illness and with love:
the terrible settee
with worn red flowers, the table de nuit,
the picture with the little man
walking the infinite road
to a West of gold;
these have all been (and are to be)
loves truer than our human mould,
or desperate walls
flung up against the shock of things,
what has no name; or growing old.

Bernard Spencer, Aegean Islands and Other Poems (1946).

Evan Charlton, "Hotel, River and Ruins" (c. 1980)

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Earlier this month I posted the following poem from The Greek Anthology:

This stone, beloved Sabinus, on thy grave
     Memorial small of our great love shall be.
I still shall seek thee lost; from Lethe's wave
     Oh! drink not thou forgetfulness -- of me.

Anonymous (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

I realize that some may find the poem to be slight:  four lines by a nameless ancient poet translated by a Victorian historian who dabbled in poetry. And I suspect that those who have knowledge of the original Greek text may find the translation wanting (and/or florid).  Yes, I understand.  But it keeps haunting me, and I cannot let it go.

But I will not destroy it by dissecting it.  I will only say that this is marvelous:  "I still shall seek thee lost."  As is this:  "Memorial small of our great love shall be."  Translation or not, the poem bridges the millennia and reminds us that we are all one and the same.  From an unknown Greek poet in an antique land to a translator in Victorian England to readers in the 21st century:  nothing has changed.

John Piper
"Tombstones, Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges" (1940)

William Johnson Cory, whose wonderful translation of a poem by Callimachus appeared here recently, wrote a poem in Greek which he then translated into English.  It is an appropriate companion to the first poem. From the other side of the grave.


You come not, as aforetime, to the headstone every day,
And I, who died, I do not chide because, my friend, you play;
Only, in playing, think of him who once was kind and dear,
And, if you see a beauteous thing, just say, he is not here.

William Johnson Cory, Ionica (1891).

Cory has captured the spirit and tone of the poems in The Greek Anthology very well:  that characteristic mixture of emotion and stoicism (lower case) -- restrained passion, with an underlying foundation of dignity and decency.  Ancient, not modern.

John Piper, "Exterior of the Church of St. Denis, Faxton" (1940)

In his essay "The Charm of the Greek Anthology" (in More Literary Recreations), Edward Cook perceptively pairs Cory's "Remember" with a poem of the same title by Christina Rossetti (which has previously been posted here, but is always worth revisiting).


Remember me when I am gone away,
     Gone far away into the silent land;
     When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
     You tell me of our future that you planned:
     Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
     And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
     For if the darkness and corruption leave
     A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
     Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

John Piper, "Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Berkshire" (1940)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Who Has Seen The Wind?"

In terms of reading poetry, I've barely scratched the surface.  I'd guess I've read about 1% of the poetry that I would have liked to have read by this point in my life.  But I'm not concerned.  I'm not preparing for an examination.  I'm not in a contest.  In fact, I'm reluctant to read more than one or two poems a day.  A poem deserves attention.  It also needs to sit a while.  It is not a text message.  It is not a sound bite.

Many of us have experienced sensory overload when visiting an art museum:  in time, you lose your ability to see.  I've concluded that I'm better off spending a great deal of time in front of a few paintings rather than trying to look at them all.  The same principle applies, I think, to the reading of poetry:  less is better.  But perhaps I'm simply trying to rationalize my slow pace (and my slow-wittedness).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

One advantage of my snail's pace is that it allows me to mull things over. Other possibilities may present themselves if you let a poem percolate. Some of these possibilities may lie outside of the poem. For instance, I recently read the following poem for the first time.

             Till I Went Out

Till I went out of doors to prove
What through my window I saw move;
To see if grass was brighter yet,
And if the stones were dark and wet;

Till I went out to see a sign --
That slanted rain, so light and fine,
Had almost settled in my mind
That I at last could see the wind.

W. H. Davies, Forty New Poems (1918).

I am not going to suggest that this is the sort of revelatory poem by which one can steer the course of one's life.  But it shouldn't be passed over quickly.  Consider, for example, the final line, with its implication that this is not the first occasion on which the speaker has sought to see the wind. Some may consider this madness.  Not I.

After reading the poem, I felt that this notion of seeing the wind was something that I had encountered before.  But I couldn't put my finger on it. Then, the next morning, I remembered this.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
     The wind is passing thro'.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
     The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

Again, this is not a life-changing poem.  But the movement from "Till I Went Out" is a pleasant one.

James McIntosh Patrick
"Rum and Eigg from Ardtoe, Acharacle, Argyllshire" (1959)

Next, Rossetti's poem prompted me to recall this untitled poem by Michael Longley.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1998).

I find this emergence of connections to be rewarding.  These things happen in their own easy-going fashion.  It is not a matter of study or of explication.  Each poem we read stands on its own.  Yet each poem also has a place in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of every poem we have ever read.  And there is no hurry.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

Monday, September 30, 2013


We are surrounded by noise.  My definition of noise is catholic:  the noise of which I speak is both audible and visible.  Any electronic screen is noisy. Thus, for instance, a politician talking on a TV screen with the sound turned off is cacophonous.  And, at the risk of alienating some of you, dear readers, I'm afraid I have to say that electronic books (or whatever they're called) are visibly noisy as well.  To be consistent, I'm perfectly willing to admit that blogs are generators of noise.  (Although some of us hope that our noise is in the service of silence.)

I once read a book about the Renaissance which contained a chapter about how the day-to-day world of that era sounded.  The author included the chapter in order to provide an evocative sense of how vast the difference is between that time and our time.  Think of it.  No planes passing overhead. No cars.  Nobody talking on cell phones.  The most common recurring sound?  Church bells over the rooftops and the fields.

Mind you, I have no immediate plans to repair to a yurt on the Mongolian steppe.  Yes, I am a hypocrite.  I am a consumer and a purveyor of noise. But I prefer silence.

Richard Eurich, "Landscape with Chestnut Trees" (1968)


It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.

Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried 'Buy'
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, 'Sell your repose.'

R. S. Thomas, H'm (1972).

Richard Eurich, "Snow over Skyreholme" (1937)

                Golden Silences

There is silence that saith, 'Ah me!'
     There is silence that nothing saith;
          One the silence of life forlorn,
     One the silence of death;
One is, and the other shall be.

One we know and have known for long,
     One we know not, but we shall know,
          All we who have ever been born;
     Even so, be it so, --
There is silence, despite a song.

Sowing day is a silent day,
     Resting night is a silent night;
          But whoso reaps the ripened corn
     Shall shout in his delight,
While silences vanish away.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

Richard Eurich, "From Haworth, Yorkshire" (1965)

     The quietness;
A chestnut leaf sinks
     Through the clear water.

Shohaku (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 231.

This haiku provides a fine example of how lovely a haiku can sound in Japanese.  Here is the Romanized Japanese original:

     Shizukasa wa
kuri no ha shizumu
     shimizu kana

Shizukasa means "quietness" or "silence."  Wa is a particle that makes "quietness" the subject of the sentence (sort of).  Kuri is "chestnut."  Ha is "leaf."  No is a particle which makes the phrase kuri no ha mean "chestnut leaf."  Shizumu is a verb meaning "to sink."  Shimizu means "clear water." Kana is difficult to translate.  It usually means "I wonder" when used in everyday conversation.  However, when it is used at the end of a haiku, it expresses a sense of reflection combined with wonderment (or so it seems to this amateur):  perhaps something along the lines of "Ahhh . . ."

All of this leads to the following wonderful sequence:  shizukasa . . . shizumu . . . shimizu.  This is the sort of thing that gets "lost in translation."

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I ought to be better versed in the names of flowers.  I do know that the dahlias are still flourishing at this time of year.  But I am in no position to distinguish one variety from another.  On my walks this week, I have been admiring a lovely purple flower that appears to be a daisy.  Whether it is an African daisy or an aster I do not know.  But I am content in my ignorance. Looking is sufficient.

Yesterday, I noticed a single purple and yellow flower beside a driveway.  It seemed pansy-like.  Might it have been heartsease?  I'd be the last to know.

David Chatterton (1900-1963), "Vase with Yellow Chrysanthemums"

               "Balm in Gilead"

Heartsease I found, where Love-lies-bleeding
     Empurpled all the ground:
Whatever flowers I missed unheeding,
     Heartsease I found.

     Yet still my garden mound
Stood sore in need of watering, weeding,
     And binding growths unbound.

Ah, when shades fell to light succeeding
     I scarcely dared look round:
"Love-lies-bleeding" was all my pleading,
     Heartsease I found.

Christina Rossetti, Verses (1893).

This is one of those poems by Rossetti that might be a religious poem (as suggested by the title), but might well be a tale of romantic heartbreak.  But I shouldn't sell her short:  it is entirely possible that it is both.

Charles Ginner, "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)

According to the OED, "heart's ease" is "peace of mind; freedom from care or worry; contentment."  A thing rarely happened upon?

               The Heartsease

Do you remember that hour
In a nook of the flowing uplands
When you found for me, at the cornfield's edge,
A golden and purple flower?
Heartsease, you said.  I thought it might be
A token that love meant well by you and me.

I shall not find it again
With you no more to guide me.
I could not bear to find it now
With anyone else beside me.
And the heartsease is far less rare
Than what it is named for, what I can feel nowhere.

Once again it is summer:
Wildflowers beflag the lane
That takes me away from our golden uplands,
Heart-wrung and alone.
The best I can look for, by vale or hill,
A herb they tell me is common enough -- self-heal.

C. Day Lewis, Poems 1943-1947 (1948).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (c. 1944)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Green Now, Grey Now, Gone Anon"

When not bemoaning the state of their love life, Elizabethan poets were wont to be worrying another sore tooth:  the transience of our time on earth.  Christina Rossetti's lines "To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,/Scentless, colorless, this!" go well with the following untitled poem, which was set to music by Orlando Gibbons.

Fair is the rose, yet fades with heat or cold.
Sweet are the violets, yet soon grow old.
The lily is white, yet in one day 'tis done.
White is the snow, yet melts against the sun.
So white, so sweet was my fair mistress' face,
Yet altered quite in one short hour's space.
So short-lived beauty a vain gloss doth borrow,
Breathing delight to-day, but none to-morrow.

Anonymous, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).  The poem was first published in 1612 in Gibbons's Madrigals and Motets.

Kenneth Rowntree, "Old Toll Bar House, Ashopton" (1940)

With autumn nearly upon us, this is apt:


When the leaves in autumn wither
     With a tawny tanned face,
Warped and wrinkled up together,
     The year's late beauty to disgrace;
There thy life's glass may'st thou find thee:
     Green now, grey now, gone anon,
     Leaving, worldling, of thine own
Neither fruit nor leaf behind thee.

Joshua Sylvester, in Norman Ault, Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).  The poem was written prior to 1618, and was first published in 1621.  "Worldling" (line 7) is a lovely word (both in the context of this poem and in general). It deserves wider currency, I think.  It helps us to keep things in perspective.

Kenneth Rowntree, "Bridge End Farm, Derwent Village" (1940)

Finally, here is a wider view of things.

                              To Time

Eternal Time, that wastest without waste,
     That art and art not, diest, and livest still;
Most slow of all, and yet of greatest haste;
     Both ill and good, and neither good nor ill:
          How can I justly praise thee, or dispraise?
          Dark are thy nights, but bright and clear thy days.

Both free and scarce, thou giv'st and tak'st again;
     Thy womb that all doth breed, is tomb to all;
What so by thee hath life, by thee is slain;
     From thee do all things rise, by thee they fall:
          Constant, inconstant, moving, standing still;
          Was, Is, Shall be, do thee both breed and kill.

I lose thee, while I seek to find thee out;
     The farther off, the more I follow thee;
The faster hold, the greater cause of doubt;
     Was, Is, I know; but Shall, I cannot see.
          All things by thee are measured; thou, by none:
          All are in thee; thou, in thyself alone.

"A. W.", in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).   The poem first appeared in 1602 in an anthology titled A Poetical Rhapsody, which was edited by Francis Davison.  To my knowledge, the identity of "A. W." has never been discovered, although there has been much scholarly speculation as to who it may be.  I've grown to like the fact that the writers of some of the best Elizabethan poems remain anonymous:  it puts the focus on the poetry, where it ought to be.

Kenneth Rowntree, "Bridge to Cox's Farm, Ashopton" (1940)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

September: "Lovely With Dream And Faint, Faint, Faint"

September has a high wistfulness quotient.  Summer is hanging on, but your emotions tell you otherwise.  Things seem vaguely unsettling -- like having one foot in the rowboat and one foot on the dock.  "Now it is September and the web is woven. /The web is woven and you have to wear it."  So writes Wallace Stevens in "The Dwarf."

For instance:  this week could have passed for high summer.  Then, as I turned a corner on a sunny afternoon walk, I saw in the distance a row of trees whose upper leaves had turned red and orange and yellow.  The bright boughs swayed against the sky-blue sky.

                  "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
            Scentless, colourless, this!
      Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
               Thus with our bliss,
         If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
            Sooner, later, at last,
      Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
               An end locked fast,
         Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

Sine MacKinnon (1901-1996), "Vent D'est in Early Autumn in Provence"


She walketh like a ghost,
     Lovely and gray
And faint, faint, faint . . .
     Ere Autumn's host
Of colours gay
     Breaks on the year, September
Comes sighing her soft plaint,

Remember what?  All fair
     Warm loves now wan:
All fleet, fleet, fleet
     Flowers in the hair
Of Summers gone!
     Though fruit break rosy, of these
Are her most sweet
     Sad memories.

Most faint and tender
     Music awaketh,
Sighing, sighing, sighing,
     A voice to lend her.
Surely it breaketh
    Even Death's heart, as he goes
To gather in Summer's long-dying
     Last rose.

So drifting like a ghost,
     Lovely with dream
And faint, faint, faint,
     Sighing 'remember,' almost
September did seem
     My gray soul's image, as she
Whispered over that plaint
     So musically!

F. W. Harvey, September and Other Poems (1925).

Sine MacKinnon, "Mending Nets, St. Tropez"


When in still air and still in summertime
A leaf has had enough of this, it seems
To make up its mind to go; fine as a sage
Its drifting in detachment down the road.

Howard Nemerov, Gnomes & Occasions (1973).

Sine MacKinnon, "The Old Houses of the Fishing Village"

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I readily admit that I cannot come up with a unifying theme that brilliantly ties together all of the following poems.  I have encountered them by chance over the years, and now they have come to be associated with one another in my mind.  What do they share?  A single word.

          The Prisoners

Somehow we never escaped
Into the sunlight,
Though the gates were always unbarred
And the warders tight.
For the sketches on the walls
Were to our liking,
And squeaks from the torture-cell
Most satisfying.

James Reeves, Subsong (Heinemann 1969).

I suppose that Plato's cave may come to mind.  Although, as soon as I come up with something like that, I cringe.  No allusion-hunting or symbol-mongering permitted.  Belay that explication!

Albert Scott Cox (1863-1920), "French Farm"

          So Long in Prison

Sunlight on the shore proclaims:
This is your day of liberation.
The south wind has a handshake for
The lean prisoner with haunted eyes.

Should not your voice, so long in prison,
Be raucous as a gull's?
But hear what song those wings
Carving the vacant spaces of the air
Raise like a statue to this day's release.

James Reeves, Ibid.

The two poems appear side-by-side in Subsong.

Dane Maw, "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)

A Sorrowful Sigh of a Prisoner

Lord, comest Thou to me?
     My heart is cold and dead:
Alas that such a heart should be
     The place to lay Thy head!

Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (edited by R. W. Crump and Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001).

On the surface, Rossetti's devotional verse seems to have a great deal of certainty about it.  But, when read in the context of her non-religious verse, a tension becomes noticeable -- something to do with the heart versus the soul, I would guess.

David Chatterton (1900-1963), "River Scene with Bridge"

                                 Here Lies a Prisoner

                 Leave him: he's quiet enough: and what matter
                 Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
     that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                                      Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000). In the original, the third line is a single line.  However, due to margin limitations, it does not appear as such here.

This is the sort of breathtaking poem that makes one wonder why Charlotte Mew's poetry is not better known.  Further, such a wondrous thing gives one pause:  what might English (and American) poetry be like now if Mew and Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney and Wilfred Owen had lived long and healthy lives?

Delmar Harmood Banner
"Yews in Mardale Churchyard before Destruction" (1945)

Sunday, June 23, 2013


I first encountered the word "bourne" in the title of a poem by Christina Rossetti.  I had no idea what it meant, but I immediately felt that it was a lovely word.  There was something about the look and the sound and the feel of it that was restful and peaceful.  It conveyed a sense of repose.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word -- in the sense used by Rossetti -- as follows:  "The limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course; the ultimate point aimed at, or to which anything tends; destination, goal."

I recently came across the word again in a poem by Walter de la Mare.

                       The Bourne

Rebellious heart, why still regret so much
A destiny which all that's mortal shares?
Surely the solace of the grave is such
That there naught matters; and, there, no one cares?

Nor faith, nor love, nor dread, nor closest friend
Can from this nearing bourne your footfall keep:
But there even conflict with your self shall end,
And every grief be reconciled in Sleep.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

John Nash, "Avoncliffe: from the Aqueduct"

The word brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books.

"I always turn out of my way to walk through a country churchyard; these rural resting-places are as attractive to me as a town cemetery is repugnant. I read the names upon the stones, and find a deep solace in thinking that for all these the fret and the fear of life are over.  There comes to me no touch of sadness; whether it be a little child or an aged man, I have the same sense of happy accomplishment; the end having come, and with it the eternal peace, what matter if it came late or soon?  There is no such gratulation as Hic jacet.  There is no such dignity as that of death.  In the path trodden by the noblest of mankind these have followed; that which of all who live is the utmost thing demanded, these have achieved. I cannot sorrow for them, but the thought of their vanished life moves me to a brotherly tenderness.  The dead, amid this leafy silence, seem to whisper encouragement to him whose fate yet lingers:  As we are, so shalt thou be; and behold our quiet!"

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), pages 183-184.

The OED defines "gratulation" as "manifestation or expression of joy; a rejoicing," or "a feeling of gratification, joy, or exultation; rejoicing in heart."  Another sense (designated as obsolete) is "reward, recompense."

John Nash, "Wakes Colne Mill, Colchester, Essex" (1931)

Here is the poem in which I first discovered "bourne."

                 The Bourne

Underneath the growing grass,
     Underneath the living flowers,
     Deeper than the sound of showers:
     There we shall not count the hours
By the shadows as they pass.

Youth and health will be but vain,
     Beauty reckoned of no worth:
     There a very little girth
     Can hold round what once the earth
Seemed too narrow to contain.

Christina Rossetti, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866).

John Nash, "Rocks and Water" (c. 1950)

Monday, June 17, 2013

By The Sea, Part Two: "So Of The Soul"

By happenstance I have lived beside salt water since the age of eleven:  the Pacific Ocean (to the west, with the exception of one year in Japan), Puget Sound (a meandering inland arm of the Pacific), and the Indian Ocean (for two years).  I've become accustomed to having an expanse of blue or grey at my shoulder.

Don't get me wrong:  I love the nearly waterless wide-openness of, say, the high desert of Utah and Arizona and New Mexico or the plains of the Midwest ("amber waves of grain" is quite accurate).  And one of the finest drives I have ever taken was along the green-walled and green-vaulted Natchez Trace Parkway from Natchez on the Mississippi River to the outskirts of Nashville.

But there is something about having water out on the horizon.  "The sea is a mirror, not only to the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but to all one's dreams, to all one's speculations. . . . The sea tells us that everything is changing and that nothing ever changes, that tides go out and return, that all existence is a rhythm."  Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands, (1918), page 296.

Robert Lee, "Whitby Harbour" (1951)

                         By the Sea

In tottering row, like shadows, silently
The old pier-timbers struggle from the sea;
Strained in old storms by those wild waves that creep
So gently now, no longer do they keep
The pier that on them rested long ago,
But stand as driven piles in tottering row.
The sky sails downward, upward creeps the wave,
For countless clouds toward the sun's bright grave
Move curiously with grey and misty wing;
So thickly all the sky environing,
That only by one pale bright spot is known
Where still the sunken light is upward thrown,
And lately sunk the weary king of day:
Still on the sands below in stealthy play
Arise the billows of the nightly tide;
Each with its own clear layer doth override
The spreaded calm where its last brother rolled;
Each upon other rippling draws the fold
Of its thin edge along the soaked sand,
And stirs the spongy foam 'twixt sea and land,
And lifts the dark waifs higher on the shore.
Yet in this quietness resides the roar
Of ocean floods; one rising of that wind,
And those slow clouds would leave the night behind
In bitter clearness; those cold waves would roll
In snarling billows white.  So of the soul.

Richard Watson Dixon, Historical Poems and Other Odes (1864).

William Edward Wigley (1880-1943), "Mevagissey Quay, Cornwall"

"The sea is austere, implacable, indifferent; it has nothing to tell us; it is an eternal question. . . . Yet, as ecstasy is only possible to one who is conscious of the possibility of despair, so the sea, as it detaches us from the world and our safeguards and our happy forgetfulnesses, and sets us by ourselves, as momentary as the turn of a wave, and mattering hardly more to the universe, gives us, if we will take them, moments of almost elemental joy."  Arthur Symons, Ibid, page 297.

                    By the Sea

Why does the sea moan evermore?
     Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
     All earth's full rivers cannot fill
     The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.

Sheer miracles of loveliness
     Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
     Blow flower-like; just enough alive
     To blow and multiply and thrive.

Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
     Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
     Are born without a pang, and die
     Without a pang, and so pass by.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).

"Blow" (line 10) is used in the sense of "to blossom, bloom."  OED.  Its use in line 9 could be either to bloom or "to move before the wind" (or, in this case, the underwater currents).

Kenneth Roberts (1932-1995), "Souvenir of Istria"

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Nothing Was Ever Beautiful In Vain, Or All In Vain Was Good"

Christina Rossetti never ceases to surprise me.  Given that she wrote so many poems (about a thousand), you never know what you will come across when you open one of her collections.  In this respect, she resembles Thomas Hardy:  you can read their poetry for years, yet still come across undiscovered gems.

Thus, I recently stumbled upon the following poem by Rossetti.  It is one of those poems by her that leaves you wondering:  where did that come from?

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (c. 1939)

                  Buds and Babies

A million buds are born that never blow,
     That sweet with promise lift a pretty head
     To blush and wither on a barren bed
          And leave no fruit to show.

Sweet, unfulfilled.  Yet have I understood
     One joy, by their fragility made plain:
     Nothing was ever beautiful in vain,
          Or all in vain was good.

Christina Rossetti,  A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).  Rossetti uses "blow" (line 1) in a sense that has now mostly disappeared, but was commonly used in Romantic and Victorian poetry:  "to burst into flower; to blossom, bloom."  OED.

I suppose that an argument could be made that "Buds and Babies" is a conventional, sentimental Victorian poem.  Perhaps this is true of its subject matter and of its first stanza.  Perhaps.  But the second stanza is another matter entirely:  it is timeless and placeless, both in terms of its art and in terms of its content.

As is always the case with something this good, I hesitate to pick it apart for fear of destroying it.  But consider the setting apart of the lovely "Sweet, unfulfilled" at the beginning of the stanza.  Or consider the sound and rhythm of "by their fragility made plain."

And what are we to make of the closing lines?  Are they a mere truism?  A pious homily?  Perhaps I am simple-minded, but to me they come out of the depths and/or the heights of I know not where.  I am reminded of another line by Rossetti:  "Love hath a name of Death."  Paraphrase would be both futile and impertinent.  I will take the coward's way out and fall back on Wittgenstein:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

Stanley Spencer, "Poppies" (1938)

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Poets are wont to write about the blackthorn as it begins to bloom in late winter or early spring, particularly in connection with the chill winds that accompany the turning of the year.  Straddling the seasons, the blackthorn bears winter's bleakness, while at the same time hinting of spring.  A precursor of the crocus.

                                       John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)

          "Endure Hardness"

A cold wind stirs the blackthorn
     To burgeon and to blow,
Besprinkling half-green hedges
     With flakes and sprays of snow.

Thro' coldness and thro' keenness,
     Dear hearts, take comfort so:
Somewhere or other doubtless
     These make the blackthorn blow.

Christina Rossetti, Verses (1893).  "Blow" in this instance means to blossom or to bloom.

With its suggestion that "coldness" and "keenness" and "hardness" will eventually give way to reawakening and growth, "Endure Hardness" is reminiscent of Rossetti's "There Is a Budding Morrow in Midnight," which I have posted here previously.  Here are the last three lines of that poem:

For a future buds in everything;
               Grown, or blown,
Or about to break.

Christina Rossetti, Poems (1888).

                                 John Aldridge, "Bridge, February" (1963)

The resemblance of blackthorn blossoms to snow recurs in the following poem by Michael Longley.

                            The Blackthorn

A bouquet for my fifties, these flowers without leaves
Like easter snow, hailstones clustering at dayligone --
From the difficult thicket a walking stick in bloom, then
Astringency, the blackthorn and its smoky plum.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).

In a note, Longley indicates that "dayligone" (line 2) is a "Scots (or Ulster Scots)" word which means "twilight, dusk."  Ibid, page 68.  The word "easter" (line 2) is not capitalized in the original.

                                 John Aldridge, "Landscape" (c. 1940s)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"There Is A Budding Morrow In Midnight"

We are in the midst of winter.  Still, there are signs of what is to come. Yesterday I saw a magnolia tree full of grey felt buds.  Surprisingly, I also came across a cherry tree with a scattering of small pink blossoms.  Testing the air?  Impatient?  Confused?  Too soon, I fear.  But what do I know?

                      William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "The Temple Church"

"There Is A Budding Morrow In Midnight"

Wintry boughs against a wintry sky;
        Yet the sky is partly blue
                And the clouds are partly bright: --
Who can tell but sap is mounting high
                Out of sight,
Ready to burst through?

Winter is the mother-nurse of Spring,
        Lovely for her daughter's sake,
                Not unlovely for her own:
For a future buds in everything;
                Grown, or blown,
Or about to break.

Christina Rossetti, Poems (1888).

The source of Rossetti's title is a line from Keats's sonnet "To Homer":
. . . . .
Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light,
     And precipices show untrodden green;
There is a budding morrow in midnight,
     There is a triple sight in blindness keen;
Such seeing hadst thou, as it once befell
To Dian, Queen of Earth, and Heaven, and Hell.

                            William Ratcliffe, "Winter Scene with Houses"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas, Part Two: "Earth Grown Old"

Christina Rossetti's best-known poem is usually sung or listened to, not read.  I suspect that many of those who sing or listen to the verses are not aware that they were written by Rossetti.  Here is the first stanza of the poem:

In the bleak mid-winter
   Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
   Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
   Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
   Long ago.

Christina Rossetti, "A Christmas Carol," in Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875 edition).  The lines "Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/Snow on snow" are particularly lovely, I think.

The poem was first published in a periodical in 1872.  Rossetti died in 1894.  In 1906, Gustav Holst set the poem to music.

                  Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Mainstreet, Roros" (1904)

The line "Earth stood hard as iron" in the first stanza of "A Christmas Carol" seems to lead naturally to another seasonal poem by Rossetti.


Earth grown old, yet still so green,
          Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
          Earth grown old.

          We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
          Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
          When will life burst thro' her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
          Earth grown old.

Christina Rossetti, Verses (1893).

As I have mentioned on other occasions, a significant amount of Rossetti's poetry consists of devotional verse.  "Advent" falls within that category. Who are the "millions" who "lie hid between/Inner swathings of her fold"? I presume that they may be those who (to quote from another Rossetti poem) are "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over."  Beyond that, I am not qualified to opine on the "meaning" of the poem.  Rossetti has a mystical strain that gives much of her religious verse a riddling quality. And one often senses that her non-theological world lies somewhere between the lines as well.

                             Harald Sohlberg, "A View of Vestfold" (1909)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Autumn Refrain"

The nightingale is not, alas, native to the United States.  Thus, its sound is something that we can only imagine, or experience vicariously through the wonder of the Internet.  In the following poem, Wallace Stevens considers the nightingale's absence, an absence that is heightened by its recurrent presence in English poetry.  Commentators on the poem suggest that Stevens is referring to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale."

                       George Allsopp, "Wharfedale Landscape" (c. 1960)

                    Autumn Refrain

The skreak and skritter of evening gone
And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon,
The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
In measureless measures, not a bird for me
But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
I have never -- shall never hear.  And yet beneath
The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
Being and sitting still, something resides,
Some skreaking and skrittering residuum,
And grates these evasions of the nightingale
Though I have never -- shall never hear that bird.
And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,
The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

The latter part of the poem is dominated by the repetition of "still" and "stillness":  "And yet beneath/The stillness of everything gone, and being still,/Being and sitting still, something resides . . . And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,/The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound." Despite its changefulness, autumn can be the stillest time of the year.  Like a great pause.

                  Bertha Ridley Bell (1898-1955), "Poole Harbour, Dorset"

When it comes to nightingales, Keats's "Ode" is too ornate for my taste.  I prefer these lines by Christina Rossetti, which come from her poem "Twilight Calm":

        Hark! that's the nightingale,
        Telling the selfsame tale
Her song told when this ancient earth was young:
So echoes answered when her song was sung
        In the first wooded vale.

        We call it love and pain
        The passion of her strain;
And yet we little understand or know:
Why should it not be rather joy that so
        Throbs in each throbbing vein?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

                                  Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Autumn Silences The Turtle Dove; -- In Blank Autumn Who Could Speak Of Love?"

There are two sides to Christina Rossetti.  On the one hand, she can seem to be a fairly "typical" Victorian poet:  sentimental and/or pious.  (As I have noted before, a large number of Rossetti's poems consist of devotional verse.)  I hasten to add that the fact that a poem may be sentimental and/or pious does not mean that it cannot be a good poem.  Rossetti wrote many fine poems of this sort.


Fade tender lily,
     Fade O crimson rose,
Fade every flower
     Sweetest flower that blows.

Go chilly Autumn,
     Come O Winter cold;
Let the green things die away
     Into common mould.

Birth follows hard on death,
     Life on withering:
Hasten, we shall come the sooner
     Back to pleasant Spring.

Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (Penguin 2001).

         William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "Regent's Canal at Hammersmith"

On the other hand, Rossetti can be as complex, deep, penetrating, and emotional as any poet you care to name.  When you read one of these poems, you realize that you are in another world altogether.


Care flieth,
     Hope and fear together,
Love dieth
In the Autumn weather.

For a friend
     Even care is pleasant;
When fear doth end
     Hope is no more present:
Autumn silences the turtle dove; --
In blank Autumn who could speak of love?


Well, now, what is that all about?  Is it about lost or unrequited love?  Is it about the ways of God?  Or is it simply a poem about autumn?  It sounds Elizabethan, like something (dare I say?) that Shakespeare or Donne might have written.  It sounds ancient and timeless.

                                  William Ratcliffe, "Bodinnick, Fowey"