Friday, November 8, 2019

Abode

I usually pay a visit to Chinese poetry in autumn.  Not necessarily in search of autumn-themed poems (although there is no shortage of those), but rather for the equanimity and serenity one so often finds in Chinese poetry.  Yet, it is autumn, after all, and I look forward to an encounter with wistful bittersweetness and bittersweet wistfulness as well.  The season is what it is.

                    Planting Bamboos

I am not suited for service in a country town;
At my closed door autumn grasses grow.
What could I do to ease a rustic heart?
I planted bamboos, more than a hundred shoots.
When I see their beauty, as they grow by the stream-side,
I feel again as though I lived in the hills,
And many a time when I have not much work
Round their railing I walk till night comes.
Do not say that their roots are still weak,
Do not say that their shade is still small;
Already I feel that both in courtyard and house
Day by day a fresher air moves.
But most I love, lying near the window-side,
To hear in their branches the sound of the autumn wind.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946), page 124.

As I have noted before, my two favorite translators of Chinese poetry are Waley and Burton Watson.  Here is Watson's translation of the poem:

               Newly Planted Bamboo

Aide to a magistrate, not my sort of job;
I close my gate, let autumn grasses grow.
What delights a man with country tastes like mine?
Planting bamboo, over a hundred stalks!
Gazing at their colors by the terrace stairs,
I think I'm far off in the mountains.
Sometimes, free of public duties,
I wander all day by the railings.
Don't say the roots aren't firm yet,
don't say they make no shade --
already I can feel in house and garden
little by little their pervading coolness.
And most of all I love, lying close by the window,
the sound of autumn wind in the branches.

Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 2000), page 5.

Waley was an Englishman who produced most of his translations of Chinese poetry in the first half of the 20th century (with the lion's share of them completed during, and just after, the First World War). Watson was an American who produced his translations in the second half of the 20th century and on into this century.  I do not find critical assessments using the word "best" to be very useful. Hence, although I am tempted to do so, I will refrain from saying that Waley and Watson are the "best" translators of traditional Chinese poetry.  However, I will say that, in my humble opinion, they have the finest poetic sensibilities of any translators I have come across. These sensibilities (one recognizably English and one recognizably American) are coupled with a fidelity to, and a respect for, the text, form, meaning, and feeling of the original poems.  Their work is a gift to us all.

James Humbert Craig (1877-1944), "Dunlewey, County Donegal"

I have said this before:  it seems to me that simple peace and quiet is what many of us are in search of.  How do we find it?  Plant bamboo. Listen to the sound of the autumn wind in the branches.  This has never been an arcane secret.  Over the centuries, in all places, poets and philosophers, and even a Roman emperor, have placed stepping stones for us.  Following them is another matter entirely, of course.

"They seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains:  you too used to be fond of such things.  But this is all from ignorance.  A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and no where will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul."

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

This observation goes hand-in-hand, I think, with one of the emperor's injunctions:

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Jeremy Collier), in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Humbert Craig, "Windy Day, Donegal"

The present age (whenever one is alive) is always full of noise, distraction, and false gods.  Our "modern" world is no different, although moderns harbor the self-flattering notion that they are unique beings living in a unique time, the vanguard of "progress" and "enlightenment."  No.  The  particulars of the noise and the distraction may have altered over the millennia (due solely to technology, not to a change in human nature), but the false gods remain the same.  Better to let it all go.

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 76.  The poem is untitled.

This is Burton Watson's translation of the same poem:

I built my hut in a place where people live,
and yet there's no clatter of carriage or horse.
You ask me how that could be?
With a mind remote, the region too grows distant.
I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
see the southern mountain, calm and still.
The mountain air is beautiful at close of day,
birds on the wing coming home together.
In all this there's some principle of truth,
but try to define it and you forget the words.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 135.

James Humbert Craig, "Drumfresky, Cushendun"

Monday, October 21, 2019

Nevertheless

Autumn encourages reflection, don't you think?  More so than any other season, perhaps.  All of this passing and vanishing, all of this melancholy beauty and beautiful melancholy.  Even haiku poets, who tend not to be self-referential, are liable to look inward.

     The autumn of my life;
The moon is a flawless moon,
     Nevertheless --

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 396.  Although the phrase "the autumn of my life" could be written at any time of the year, the reference to "a flawless moon" places the poem in autumn.

The final word of the poem is nagara, which Blyth translates as "nevertheless."  Following his translation of the haiku, Blyth notes: "Issa was fond of using nagara."  Ibid, page 396.  However, he does not mention Issa's use of the word in what is likely Issa's best-known poem, although he does translate the poem later in the same volume:

     This dewdrop world --
It may be a dewdrop,
     And yet -- and yet --

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 433.

Nagara appears twice at the end of the haiku, this time translated by Blyth as "and yet," rather than as "nevertheless."  Blyth writes:  "This verse has the prescript, 'Losing a beloved child.'  This child was Sato-jo, and Issa's feelings at this time are portrayed in Oragaharu [a prose diary containing haiku].  He had already lost two or three children when this baby girl died."  Ibid, page 433.  Issa's moving description of his daughter's sudden illness and death appears in an earlier post.

Here is an alternative translation of the haiku:

     The world of dew
is the world of dew.
     And yet, and yet --

Issa (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 228.

Autumn is indeed the season of "and yet -- and yet --" and of "nevertheless."  A song by Mark Linkous (performing as Sparklehorse) comes to mind:  "Sad and Beautiful World."

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening To Its Close" (1896)

Depending upon one's mood at the moment, or one's overall view of life, "nevertheless" may be an exclamation of joy, a cry of despair, or a sigh of acceptance (or some combination of each of these, in varying degrees).  Consider, for instance, this haiku by Bashō:

     This autumn,
How old I am getting:
     Ah, the clouds, the birds!

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 334.

Bashō wrote the poem on November 13, 1694, during his final illness. He died two weeks later, at the age of 50.  The poem is preceded by this title:  "A wanderer's thought."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 407.)

Nagara does not appear in the haiku.  However, "Ah, the clouds, the birds!" functions as a "nevertheless," as an "and yet -- and yet --," to Bashō's opening observation.  But what sort of "nevertheless" is this? One of joy, despair, or acceptance?  Well, that's best left for each of us to decide.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

What a wonderful and breathtaking circumstance:  each year, the seasons play out for us the arc of our life.  This beautiful and mysterious gift should give us pause.  One might fancy that we are part of something that is beyond our ken, and beyond words.  In the meantime, autumn and winter and spring and summer come and go, each with its own "and yet -- and yet --," its own "nevertheless."  How lucky we are.

              Return

Leaves talked in the tree
"It will be,"
Wind with lifted tune
"Soon,"
A squirrel shook the bough,
"Quick," "Now."

Branch is not changed:
Stands the high stairway where the squirrel ranged,
Just as it stood.
Wind, on fallen key,
"It had to be;"
Leaves drift through the wood.

Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929), Poems (Oxford University Press 1931).

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Monday, October 7, 2019

Here

It's funny how a poem will return out of the blue, for no apparent reason.  Not the whole poem (my memory is too feeble for that), but an image from it, or the feeling it evokes.  Early last week, this floated up unaccountably:

                     The Fountains

Suddenly all the fountains in the park
Opened smoothly their umbrellas of water,
Yet there was none but me to miss or mark
Their peacock show, and so I moved away
Uneasily, like one who at a play
Finds himself all alone, and will not stay.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

The poem struck me when I first came across it years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since.  I have no desire to pick it apart in order to come to a conclusion as to what it "means."  It is simply (but not so simply) a lovely thing, best left alone.

When out walking -- in any place, under any sky, at any time of day or night, in any season -- have you ever had the feeling that the World is too beautiful to bear?

John Quinton Pringle (1864-1925), "Springtime, Ardersier" (1923)

A few days after I visited "The Fountains," this appeared:

     Just being here,
I am here,
     And the snow falls.

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 359.

On a recent grey afternoon, a strong wind blew steadily when I took my afternoon walk beneath the trees.  The boughs (still leafy, still mostly green, but not for long) tossed and roared overhead.  It seemed as though some sort of denouement was close at hand.  But I immediately realized I was mistaken.  As I often do, I reminded myself to stop thinking.  The World.  There it is.

John Quinton Pringle, "The Window" (1924)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Departures

At a certain point in one's life, the deaths begin to accumulate, don't they?  Family members and relatives, close and distant.  Friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, classmates, neighbors.  In the public sphere, nearly every week brings news of the deaths of musicians, assorted entertainers, sports heroes, and other figures who one "grew up with."  (Ah, the vanishing rock stars, carrying away our youth!)

One grieves to a greater or a lesser extent, but, on a purely self-interested level, one also begins to get the message.  Something along these lines:

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Or, in the context of a different season, this:

     Spring has departed;
Where has it gone,
     The moored boat?

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 286.

Buson's haiku leads naturally to this waka, which was written nine centuries before Buson's time (the continuity of Japanese poetry is a wonderful thing):

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935), "Corn Stooks" (c. 1880)

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius now and then posts lists of the illustrious and not-so-illustrious dead in order to remind himself that all is vanity and that all living things, including the emperor of Rome, are evanescent bubbles.  For instance:

"Hippocrates, after conquering many diseases, yielded to a disease at last.  The Chaldeans foretold the fatal hours of multitudes, and fate afterwards carried themselves away.  Alexander, Pompey, and Caius Caesar, who so often razed whole cities, and cut off in battle so many myriads of horse and foot, at last departed from this life themselves. Heraclitus, who wrote so much about the conflagration of the universe, died swollen with water, and bedaubed with ox-dung. Vermin destroyed Democritus, and another sort of vermin destroyed Socrates."

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

I understand what the emperor is getting at:  "Then stop, and ask, where are they all now?  Smoke, and ashes, and an old tale; or, perhaps, not even a tale."  (Meditations, Book XII, Section 27.)  Yes, understood.  But, as Marcus knew, this recognition is only the starting point for leading a good life and arriving at a good death. And now, Philip Larkin chimes in:  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  ("Aubade.")  Yes, understood as well.  One will never be prepared.  With an apology for being self-referential:  "How little we know!  It leaves you breathless."

In the meantime, I prefer lovely intimations.  A crow passing silently overhead in the evening sky of autumn.  A still pond and a departed boat.  A seaside town in late September.

       September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
"Come in, fifteen, your time is up."

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Joseph Farquharson, "Harvesting, Forest of Birse" (c. 1900)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Evening

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the calendar tells us that autumn will arrive next Monday.  However, as we all know, the timing of the turning of the seasons is a matter of the heart and of the spirit, not of the calendar.  Equinoxes and solstices are of no moment.  Light and color -- and darkness, contrasting or complementary -- are everything.

         The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

I am fond of "The Trees at Night," and I try to visit it each autumn.  It is a waif of a poem, hidden away in the middle of the final installment of Georgian Poetry, a series of anthologies that was popular in its day, but is now a footnote to "literary history."  As for William Kerr, he published (to my knowledge) only a single volume of poetry (in 1927), and his appearance in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 represents the peak of his visibility as a poet.  "Literary critics" have had no occasion to debate whether Kerr was a "major" or a "minor" poet:  he briefly appeared and then disappeared.

But I have no interest in "literary history."  Nor is the spurious taxonomy of "major" and "minor" poets of concern to me.  At the risk of trying the patience of long-time readers, I am afraid I must repeat my First Poetic Principle:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  As I say, I am fond of "The Trees at Night."  I understand the objections that might be forthcoming from moderns:  the poem is "sentimental" and "romantic," and its anthropomorphism ("The lonely lovely trees sigh"; "A few homing leaves drift by,/Poor souls bewildered and wan") places it beyond the pale.  We have progressed beyond such things, the undeceived and knowing moderns say, all irony and self-regard.  They are wrong, of course.

William Knight (1872-1958), "Autumn Afternoon"

Ah, yes, the loneliness of autumn.  Kerr knows it well:  "By a poignant delicate scent/To the lonely moon blown."  And:  "The lonely lovely trees sigh/For summer spent and gone."  He is in good company:  the Japanese haiku poets know a thing or two about autumn loneliness. For instance:

     Still lonelier
Than last year;
     Autumn evening.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 283.

Among the traditional four masters of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Issa, and Shiki), Buson is perhaps the least prone to the melancholy of loneliness.  Having said this, I must immediately qualify my statement:  melancholy, whether it be the melancholy of loneliness, the melancholy of each of the seasons (and of autumn in particular), or the melancholy of mortality, is never in short supply in any of these four wonderful poets.  We are speaking of a matter of degree.  Moreover, given that the essence of any haiku is its embodiment and presentation of a single moment in all of its evanescence -- an ephemeral moment in an ephemeral life in an ephemeral World -- one might naturally expect a high quotient of melancholy in each of the four masters.  And yet . . .

     An autumn eve;
There is joy too,
     In loneliness.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the melancholy of haiku is, above all, a joyful melancholy, a beautiful melancholy, a grateful melancholy.  How could it not be?  It is life.

     Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
     above the withered fields.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 104.

William Knight, "Autumn Evening"

Monday, September 9, 2019

All There Is

This afternoon I sat beside an open window, reading a poem.  I heard rain falling on the leaves of the maple, apple, and cherry trees in the garden.  Softly.  This is what I read:

            Rest Eternal

I shall not forget that place
Where the dead were:
Only the rain, the rain,
No-one astir,
None with me when I found
The church in its fallow ground;

Oh there was nothing there
But nettles and rain and grass,
So tangled you could not tell
Where the churchyard was,
And below in the plain
Grey fields and fields of rain.

Only the ebony rooks
Into the early light
Out of the ebony trees
Silent took flight.
I was afraid to hear
A voice in my ear.

No sound but a rook on the wing,
And of endless summer rain
The vasty whispering,
Yet close to my ear again,
(No stir from the tangled weed),
I heard, "Perpetual seed,"
And still, "Perpetual seed."

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (The Sonus Press 1972). A subscript to the poem states: "November 1931."  Joan Barton turned 23 in that year.  For more about her, please see my post from March of 2011.  "Rest Eternal" previously appeared here in November of 2011.

Rain on the leaves.  A poem.  A late summer September afternoon. These things arrive in their own time and after their own fashion, don't they?

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

Last Friday morning, I read this waka:

On an evening
     set aglow with the crimson
          of plum blossoms,
the willow boughs sway softly;
and the spring rain falls.

Kyōgoku Tamekane (1254-1332) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 244.

Of the many wonderful things about Japanese waka and haiku, perhaps the most wonderful is that each poem you read provides you with a beautiful reminder that life is to be lived in the present moment, and that the entire World is present in that moment.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Turn

The signs are here.  The telltale angled golden light.  The tree shadows lengthening across the meadows.  In a wind still warm, the first few dry fallen leaves scraping along the sidewalk, dogging one's path.

               "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 (Macmillan 1881). The title comes from Chapter 8, Verse 20, of the Book of Jeremiah (King James Version):  "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."

I have been reading Christina Rossetti's poems and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for the past week or so.  The poet and the emperor have provided me with daily reminders of our transience, evanescence, and mortality.  They are two peas in a pod.  One Christian, one pagan, but more alike than one might imagine.

"Consider frequently, how swiftly all things which exist, or arise, are swept away, and carried off.  Their substance is as a river in a perpetual course.  Their actions are in perpetual changes, and the causes subject to ten thousand alterations.  Scarce any thing is stable. And the vast eternities, past and ensuing, are close upon it on both hands; in which all things are swallowed up.  Must he not, then, be a fool, who is either puffed up with success in such things; or is distracted, and full of complaints about the contrary; as if it could give disturbance of any duration?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book V, Section 23, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Eleanor Hughes (1882-1959), "Boleigh Farm"

The following poem is one of Christina Rossetti's many strange and wonderful contemplations, part autobiography, part religious confession, but withal a thing of Beauty and Truth.  It is also a fine end of summer poem.  The final two lines are two of the loveliest I know.

               From Sunset to Star Rise

Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
     I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
     A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
     Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
     Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot.
For I have hedged me with a thorny hedge,
     I live alone, I look to die alone:
Yet sometimes when a wind sighs through the sedge
     Ghosts of my buried years and friends come back,
My heart goes sighing after swallows flown
     On sometime summer's unreturning track.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (Macmillan 1875).  There will be no attempt at explanation or explication from me.  One thought, however:  it is well to consider how the title of the poem relates to the poem itself.

"Sometime summer's unreturning track."  "An end locked fast,/Bent we cannot re-bend."  Ah, well, time will tell.  Perhaps.

"Observe continually, that all things exist in consequence of changes. Enure yourself to consider that the nature of the universe delights in nothing more than in changing the things now existing, and in producing others like them.  The things now existing are a sort of seed to those which shall arise out of them.  You may conceive that there are no other seeds than those that are cast into the earth or the womb; but such a mistake shews great ignorance."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book IV, Section 36, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Eleanor Hughes, "Boleigh Farm"

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Six: The Stars, The Planets, And The Wind

On a recent late-summer-declining-into-early-autumn afternoon, as I walked toward a distant big-leaf maple, watching its green boughs swaying high in the cloudless sky, I suddenly felt the same wordless wonder and joy at the mysterious miracle of the World that I felt when I was a child.  The feeling came out of nowhere, and lasted only an instant.  Yet, for that instant, I was who I was fifty or sixty years ago.  Nothing had changed.

Fear not, dear readers!  I do not intend to launch into an apostrophe about how we ought to "see the World through the eyes of a child."  I am simply reporting a fact.  As for reconciling how we experience the World as children with how we experience it as adults, I would refer you to William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  I cannot hope to improve upon that.

The morning after my fleeting return to childhood, I happened upon this:

                          Escape at Bedtime

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
     Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
     There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne'er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
     Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
     And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
     And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
     Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
     And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
     And the stars going round in my head.

Robert Louis Stevenson,  A Child's Garden of Verses (Longmans, Green 1885).

I am particularly fond of ". . . and the pail by the wall/Would be half full of water and stars."  A friend who read the manuscript of A Child's Garden of Verses at Stevenson's request had proposed a revision to the lines.  Stevenson's response is worth noting:

"For line 12 [Sidney] Colvin suggested . . . 'Twinkled half full' instead of 'Would be half full.'  RLS sharply rejected this:  '"Twinkled" is just the error; to the child the stars appear to be there; any word that suggests illusion is a horror'."

Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003), page 364.

Exactly.  The World of the child is one of wonderment and enchantment and mystery.  Anything is possible.

William Miller Frazer (1864-1961), "A West Coast Fishing Village"

Stevenson's poem put me in mind of this:

                 Wanderers

Wide are the meadows of night,
     And daisies are shining there,
Tossing their lovely dews,
     Lustrous and fair;
And through these sweet fields go,
     Wanderers amid the stars --
Venus, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune,
     Saturn, Jupiter, Mars.

Attired in their silver, they move,
     And circling, whisper and say,
Fair are the blossoming meads of delight
     Through which we stray.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

As in "Escape at Bedtime," the World of "Wanderers" is an enchanted and enchanting place.  Stevenson's "thousands of millions of stars" have been transformed into daisies shining in "the meadows of night."  A lovely image.  I am reminded of two instances in which the image is reversed:  Thomas Hardy's "constellated daisies" on "the grassy ground" ("The Rambler") and Andrew Young's "The stars are everywhere to-night,/Above, beneath me and around;/They fill the sky with powdery light/And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;/For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star" ("Daisies").  (There is never an end to the ways in which poets invite us to see the World, is there?)

But that is not all:  an enchanted and enchanting World is a World of mystery.  "But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,/And the stars going round in my head."  "And through these sweet fields go,/Wanderers amid the stars . . . And circling, whisper and say,/Fair are the blossoming meads of delight/Through which we stray." Where is our place in this World of stars and planets and daisies?  A child's question.  An adult's question.

[A side-note:  I like the fact that de la Mare and Stevenson do not patronize the children for whom they write.  (The same is true of Christina Rossetti.)  I also like the fact that "Escape at Bedtime" and "Wanderers" could be mistaken for "adult poems" if one encountered them outside the context of a book of "children's verse."  (This is true of a great many of the "children's poems" written by de la Mare, Stevenson, and Rossetti.)  Of course, modern ironists might scoff at this latter assertion, but they have ironized themselves out of Beauty and Truth long ago, haven't they?  Alas, there is no hope for them, so knowing and so undeceived.  Their World is disenchanted.]

William Miller Frazer, "East Linton Pastoral Landscape"

A disenchanted World holds no mystery.  Where do we come from and whither do we go?  Once again, this is both a child's question and an adult's question.  Early and late, it is a question one asks in an enchanted World.

               Nobody Knows

Often I've heard the Wind sigh
     By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
     Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
     While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
     What it said.

Nobody knows what the wind is,
     Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
     And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
     Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
     That covers me.

And so we live under deep water,
     All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
     When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
     And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
     Burns day.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes.

Is this a poem for children or a poem for adults?  A passage from another context comes to mind:

"Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren.  The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation."

Walter Pater, from "Conclusion," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 250.

I would suggest that we may substitute "poetry" for "philosophy" in Pater's sentence.  Whether "Nobody Knows" is a "children's poem" or an "adult's poem" is thus of no moment.

William Miller Frazer, "Morning, Newburgh-on-Tay"

"Escape at Bedtime," "Wanderers," and "Nobody Knows" carry us off into the vast and unknowable cosmic mystery of the World.  This is a fine thing.  Now and then.  But most of our life consists of making it through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon (to borrow from Walker Percy).  Yet the quotidian (not a pejorative term) is a vast and unknowable mystery as well, isn't it?

The World is as it was when we were children.  It is still here in all of its enchantment and mystery, in all of its beautiful particulars.  How we experienced the World as a child may sometimes return to us in evanescent moments of clarity, shot through with emotion.  This is a wonderful occurrence.  Like the sudden return of how it felt to fall in love for the first time.  The heart catches in the throat.  Ah, that was it!  But there is no going back.

This is no cause for sadness or despair.  Our daily task is to be attentive, receptive, and, above all, grateful.  An enchanted or a disenchanted World?  The choice is ours.

                        Boy's Song

I walked as a boy by evergreen hedges
And glancingly fingered their leaves as I passed;
Pictures in colour rose fluttering from them
Complete with accurate field notes of song.

I listened delighted to easy lessons
In a high summer school of brilliant birds --
If this were learning I wanted to be
A scholar of evergreen hedges for ever!

Clifford Dyment (1914-1971), Collected Poems (J. M. Dent 1970).

William Miller Frazer, "A Lincolnshire Fen"

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Affinity

One might not expect the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and A. E. Housman to share a great deal in common:  Stevenson, teller of tales, inveterate traveller, doomed to die at an early age, and knowing full well his fate; Housman, exacting classical scholar, ostensibly impassive, but harboring an unrequited love for over forty years, until the death of the beloved in a foreign land.  But I would suggest that, in their poetry, they are kindred souls.  One needn't look far to find the thread of mortality running through their poems, now at the surface, now receding.  Yet it is always there, despite the bluff and hearty manner they both often affect.

On two occasions, this consonance of spirit is displayed in a clear and lovely fashion.  One occasion involves poems by Stevenson and Housman that have their source in a traditional French children's song.  The second involves a self-penned epitaph transformed into an elegy.

While living in France in 1875, Stevenson wrote the following rondeau:

   Nous n'irons plus au bois

We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire,
To weep for old desire
And things that are no more.
     The woods are spoiled and hoar,
The ways are full of mire;
We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire.
     We loved in days of yore
Love, laughter and the lyre.
Ah God but death is dire
And death is at the door --
We'll walk the woods no more.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003).  "Nous n'irons plus au bois" (which may be translated as "we will no longer go to the woods") is the first line of a children's song. The second line of the song is:  "Les lauriers sont coupés" ("the laurels are cut down").  Stevenson likely had read a poem by the French poet Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) which begins with these two lines.  This may have inspired the rondeau.  Ibid, page 560.

The poem first appeared in a collection of Stevenson's letters published in 1899, five years after his death.  Sidney Colvin (editor), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, Volume I (Methuen 1899), pages 105-106 (letter to Frances Jane Sitwell, August 1875).  It has been suggested that Housman may have come across the poem when reading this volume.  Roger Lewis, The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, page 560.

Sometime between 1900 and 1922, Housman wrote this:

We'll to the woods no more,
The laurels all are cut,
The bowers are bare of bay
That once the Muses wore;
The year draws in the day
And soon will evening shut:
The laurels all are cut,
We'll to the woods no more.
Oh we'll no more, no more
To the leafy woods away,
To the high wild woods of laurel
And the bowers of bay no more.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).  The final handwritten draft of the poem contains the title "Nous n'irons plus au bois."  Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997), page 70.  The poem served as the untitled epigraph to Last Poems, but without the title; the text was italicized.

Is Housman's poem an intentional echo of Stevenson's, or is its existence merely a coincidence, a case of each poet being separately enchanted by the haunting sound and sense of "nous n'irons plus au bois"?  We will never know.

David Murray (1849-1933), "The Tithe Barns" (1905)

No speculation is necessary when it comes to the second crossing of paths between the two poets.  The connection is clear.  We begin with Stevenson's best-known poem:

                  Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
     And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was originally published in Underwoods (Chatto & Windus 1887).

The poem was written between 1879 and 1880.  Stevenson lived fourteen more years, but he was never under any illusions about his prospects.  This is evident throughout his poetry, but there is no self-pity, no complaint.  For instance:

I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem is untitled.

Stevenson died in Samoa on December 3, 1894.  On December 22, 1894, the following poem by Housman was published in the weekly issue of The Academy above an obituary for Stevenson.

                       R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
     Her far-borne canvas furled,
The ship pours shining on the quay
     The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
     Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
     And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
     The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
     The hunter from the hill.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).

Housman's writing of "R. L. S." within such a short time after Stevenson's death, and seeing it into print within three weeks, is something to ponder.  Bear in mind that A Shropshire Lad was not published until May of 1896.  In 1894 he was known only as a professor of Latin at University College London, not as a poet.  He was not in the habit of seeking to publish poetry in periodicals.  It would seem that something had moved him.

As for the poem itself, my oft-stated principle applies:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  "R. L. S." is a fine and lovely thing.

David Murray, "A Hampshire Haying" (c. 1895)

Perhaps I am being too reductive in suggesting that Stevenson and Housman are kindred souls.  An argument can be made that death is the ultimate subject of all poetry.  Their death-haunted poetry is arguably no different than that of scores of other poets.  Moreover, an alternative argument can also be made, as articulated by Edward Thomas:  "all poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  (Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 87.) Then again, beauty is a candidate as well, isn't it?  But this in turn leads to a further thought: "Death is the mother of beauty."  (Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning.")  And on it goes.

Enough of that.  As ever, it is the individual poem that matters.

                      An End of Travel

Let now your soul in this substantial world
Some anchor strike.  Be here the body moored; --
This spectacle immutably from now
The picture in your eye; and when time strikes,
And the green scene goes on the instant blind --
The ultimate helpers, where your horse today
Conveyed you dreaming, bear your body dead.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was written in Samoa. It was first published in 1895 in Songs of Travel and Other Verses, a posthumous collection.

David Murray, "The Stream" (1892)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Three Thoughts

One evening this past week, after sundown, I sat beside an open window that looks on to the back garden, reading Wordsworth's "Louisa: After Accompanying Her on a Mountain Excursion."  I soon heard, from a few blocks away, a live band begin to play.  A birthday party?  A wedding reception?  Simply a summer soirée?

I read and I listened.  I discovered that the band was playing mostly Top 40 songs from the 1970s:  my high school and college years.  I was compelled to pay closer attention, for part of my life was being played back to me.  I bid farewell to Louisa.  The sound came and went on the breeze:  it took me 30 seconds or so to recognize each song after it began.  "Take It Easy."  Of course.  "Blue Bayou" (via Linda Ronstadt, I presume, not Roy Orbison).  Steve Miller's "Jungle Love."  And so on.

Later in the evening came a moment of inspiration from whoever was selecting the songs for the band's playlist:  "Amie" by Pure Prairie League.  What a wonderful surprise.  I always loved that song, but I hadn't thought of it for years.  The World is forever bestowing unbidden gifts upon us.

Earlier in the week, while browsing in F. L. Lucas's Greek Poetry for Everyman, I came upon this:

Of the Gods and these other matters none knows the verity --
No man that lived before us, no man that yet shall be.
However full-perfected the system he hath made,
Its maker knoweth nothing.  With fancy all's o'erlaid.

Xenophanes (c. 570 - c. 478 B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), p. 257.

A fine thought.  Beware of the architects, and the bearers, of systems. We are all ignorant.  The sooner we acknowledge our ignorance, the better.

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951), "Wooded Hillside" (1910)

I have spent most of this month with ancient Greek poets, Walter Pater, and William Wordsworth.  This was not a plan, just a happy accident.  I am finding they go well together.  A day or so after reading the four lines by Xenophanes, I read this:

"He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."

Walter Pater, from "A Prince of Court Painters," Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1890), page 48.

Another fine thought.  A lovely thought.  Or so it seems to me.  A thought that some may feel the force of.  Others, not.  That's how these things go.

Bertram Priestman, "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)

Awaiting me at the end of the week was this:

Treat well the living.  Dead men are but dust
And shadow:  our nothingness to nothing goes.

Euripides (translator unknown), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 460.  The lines are from Meleager, a play of which only fragments exist.

A third fine thought.  The lines brought Philip Larkin to mind:

. . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber/The Marvell Press 1988).

Those are the three thoughts that came my way this week.  I feel fortunate they found me.

One more thought:  the hydrangeas in this part of the world seem unusually brilliant this year.  The blue takes your breath away.  I wonder:  has this always been the case?  Have I been asleep all these years?

Bertram Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)