Showing posts with label Edvard Munch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edvard Munch. Show all posts

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Shadow: Three Variations On A Theme

The following poem (which I have posted before) has long been a favorite of mine.  It is a slight poem, but something about it -- the combination of humor and truth? -- has kept it embedded in my memory, and I often return to it.

                      Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
   Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
   This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                                Harriet Backer, "By Lamplight" (1890)

About a year ago, I came across the following poem by Edward Shanks (1892-1953).  The poem may be too archaic or quaint in diction for some tastes, but it caught my eye given my affection for "Things to Come."

                    The Shadow

        Death, would I feared not thee,
        But ever can I see
        Thy mutable shadow thrown
Upon the walls of Life's warm, cheerful room.
        Companioned or alone,
I feel the presence of that following gloom,
        Like one who vaguely knows
Behind his back the shade his body throws --
'Tis not thy shadow only, 'tis my own!

        I face towards the light
        That rises fair and bright
        Over wide fields asleep,
But still I know that stealthy darkness there
        Close at my heels doth creep,
My ghostly company, my haunting care;
        And if the light be strong
Before my eyes, through pleasant hours and long,
Then, then, the shadow is most black and deep.

Edward Shanks, The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).  There is something to be said for brevity.  (A quality that I admire more and more with age!)  On the other hand, Shanks's observation that "the shadow is most black and deep" when the sun is brightest is very fine indeed.

                              Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)

Of course, brevity is the stock-in-trade of Japanese and Chinese poets, who can always teach us a thing or two about cutting to the chase.

    "If it be so,
so be it!"  Having said thus,
    why the hurry?

For the shadow trails the light,
implacably, indifferent to men.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen), Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press 1994).

                                  Edvard Munch, "Starry Night" (1893)

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Solar": Philip Larkin

Over the past few days, the sun has begun to feel like the true warm sun of Spring.  A pink camellia is blooming outside the kitchen window.  Wallace Stevens's words are appropriate:  "the colossal sun,/Surrounded by its choral rings."  ("Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.")  Philip Larkin is not, perhaps, the person who would come first to mind when thinking of poetic celebrations of the sun.  But -- take heed! -- Larkin is not the dour personage of caricature.  


Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974). 

Surprisingly, Larkin is so enthused about the sun that he pretty much abandons his usual forms and rhymes.  Angels even make an appearance (though coupled with our ever-present "needs").  Of course, "lonely horizontals" is there as a reminder of the other Larkin.  As is "an unfurnished sky," which brings to mind "the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless" of "High Windows."  But let's put that aside:  today is a day for a "suspended lion face."  (For another Larkin celebration of the sun, please see 'Long lion days,' which was written three years before his death.)

                                 Edvard Munch, "The Sun" (c. 1912)  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life Explained, Part Eight: "Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length"

Thus far in my "Life Explained" series, I confess that the news has not been all good.  For instance, Christina Rossetti has asked:  "Does the Road Wind Up-Hill All the Way?"  And Philip Larkin has observed (no surprise here) that "Continuing to live -- that is, repeat/A habit formed to get necessaries--/Is nearly always losing, or going without./It varies."  Perhaps it is time for some good news.  And who better to provide that news than a sometimes cranky farmer from New England?

One should never underestimate Robert Frost.  Beyond the old chestnuts, hidden gems await us.  Frost can be irritating, but he is nothing if not crafty.  A phrase to bear in mind when reading his poetry:  "Gone into if not explained."

     Happiness Makes Up in Height
        for What It Lacks in Length

Oh, stormy stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view --
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn,
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

Lest we be deceived into thinking that Frost is offering us a simple feel-good, self-help nostrum, we are well-advised not to forget line 12:  "If my mistrust is right."  This is one of those characteristic Frostian utterances that give something and then take something away (or, take something away and then give something back).  (Edward Thomas is also quite good at this.  One can see why he and Frost got along together so well.)

Oh, and we are also well-advised not to forget "change of solitude" in the final line.  Again, as Frost said:  "Gone into if not explained."

                                   Edvard Munch, "The Storm" (1893)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Praise Of Saul Bellow

I have been looking forward to this week's publication of Saul Bellow's Letters.  To mark this event, here is a passage from The Adventures of Augie March that displays all of the wonder of  Bellow's writing:  the vivid particularity, the thought, the feeling -- in short, the all-around beauty and wisdom of what Bellow did, time and time again.

"I remember I was in fishmarket square in Naples (and the Neapolitans are people who don't give up easily on consanguinity) -- this fishmarket where the mussels were done up in bouquets with colored string and slices of lemon, squids rotting out their sunk speckles from their flabbiness, steely fish bleeding and others with peculiar coins of scales -- and I saw an old beggar with his eyes closed sitting in the shells who had had written on his chest in mercurochrome:  Profit by my imminent death to send a greeting to your loved ones in Purgatory: 50 lire.

Dying or not, this witty old man was sassing everybody about the circle of love that protects you.  His skinny chest went up and down with the respiration of the deep-sea stink of the hot shore and its smell of explosions and fires.  The war had gone north not so long before.  The Neapolitan passersby grinned and smarted, longing and ironical as they read this ingenious challenge.

You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world, and suddenly it becomes more strange than ever.  The living are not what they were, the dead die again and again, and at last for good.

I see this now.  At that time not."

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (Viking 1953).

                                                      Edvard Munch
               "Self-portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed" (1940-43)