Friday, July 16, 2021

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Recently, as I walked abroad on a sunny afternoon, it occurred to me that I had not read "Adlestrop" in quite some time.  I have no idea why this thought arose.  Was it because I was walking beneath a canopy of leaves, surrounded by birdsong?  ". . . And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."  Perhaps.

In any case, I resolved to return to "Adlestrop" that evening.  But the truth is that it has never left me, nor have I left it, after having stumbled upon it forty or so years ago, after which I became steeped for a long period of time in the beauty and the melancholy of Edward Thomas' poetry.  Each of us carries these worlds inside of us, don't we?  Having made my resolution, I walked on.  Within a few minutes, this came to me:

                   Period

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 (Macmillan 1972).

Nearly fifty years have passed since "Period" was published.  Here we are.  It is a good time to sit down and read "Adlestrop."

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Little Park, Lyme Regis" (1956)

I sometimes feel that the sadness and tragedy of Edward Thomas' life has come to overshadow his poetry.  Which is why we need to read his poems.

                    Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

The origins of the poem can be traced back to an entry in one of Thomas' "field notebooks":

"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20 a.m. and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtied grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Park -- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.

"Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

"Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel -- looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass -- one man clears his throat -- a greater than rustic silence.  No house in view  Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

"Another stop like this outside Colwell on 27th with thrush singing on hillside above on road."

Edward Thomas, Ibid, page 176 (punctuation (or lack thereof) as in original text).

A vanished world.  Even then, Thomas knew it was a world that was vanishing.  Thus, the beauty and the melancholy.  (Although the source of both in Thomas' life was a great deal more complicated than that.)

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window" (c. 1937)

I am wary of reductiveness when discussing a poet's poems. Moreover, long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetic principles: "Explanation and explication are the death of poetry."  (The second, for those who may be curious, is: "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.")  Accordingly, I am tempted to leave "Adlestrop" as it is.  In a time when the world appears to be taking leave of its senses (which is always the case), it is enough that it appear here for a few souls to read.  Civilization has always been preserved by a handful of the quiet, patient, and devoted.

Still, I will offer a thought about what lies at the heart of Edward Thomas' poetry, of its beauty and melancholy and truth.  We live evanescent lives amidst the beautiful particulars of a flitting, fleeting World, a World that will outlast us.  A moment is all we have.  We should be attentive and grateful.  Hence, "Adlestrop."  Hence, nearly every poem that Thomas wrote.

     Bright Clouds

Bright clouds of may
Shade half the pond.
Beyond, 
All but one bay
Of emerald
Tall reeds
Like criss-cross bayonets
Where a bird once called,
Lies bright as the sun.
No one heeds.
The light wind frets
And drifts the scum
Of may-blossom.
Till the moorhen calls
Again
Naught's to be done
By birds or men.
Still the may falls.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.  The poem was written in June of 1916.  Ibid, page 303.

"No one heeds."  "Still the may falls."  Exactly.  We owe the World our attention and gratitude.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

I am drawn once more to a thought that has appeared here on several occasions: "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).)  An alternative translation (by David Pears and Brian McGuinness): "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."

It would seem that we now find ourselves "stifled/By vast noise." There is nothing new about this.  Only the bedlamites making the noise change.  We should never surrender our repose to them.  Which is likely why I felt the need to read "Adlestrop."  Which is why I often return to a waka written more than a thousand years ago:

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (c. 1959)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Blade of Grass

I recently read the following haiku by Bashō:

a dragonfly
vainly trying to settle
onto a blade of grass

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 297.

Ueda's book consists of a selection of Bashō's haiku, each followed by excerpts of commentaries on the poem offered by Japanese critics over the years.  Of this haiku, one critic writes: "This looks like a simple descriptive poem, and yet it makes us wonder whether Bashō's eyes were not observing something important in the very heart of nature."  (Ibid, page 297, quoting Momota Sōji (1893-1955).)

True, but a bit of an understatement, R. H. Blyth might say, for he wrote this of Bashō (in comparing him to Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes, in that order):  "In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page iii.) (Blyth's observation brings Wordsworth's "spots of time" to mind.) Many of you may be skeptical of Blyth's claim.  After all, he devoted much of his life to writing about haiku, and thus was not a disinterested party.  Knowing Blyth, he was likely also exaggerating for effect.  Still, I confess I am not unsympathetic.

But let's leave all that aside.  It is simply a matter of a blade of grass, of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
"Bluebells, Cornflowers, and Rhododendrons" (1945)

About a week later, having decided to travel to the world of W. B. Yeats, I came upon this:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).

This poem has its source in Yeats' esoteric philosophical explorations. A daunting world in which to venture.  It tends to leave me befuddled.  However, I have been fond of Yeats from an impressionable age, and I will never cease returning to him.

But, there it was again, out of the blue: "a blade of grass."  Poetry is a wonderful thing, isn't it?  You never know what will happen the next time you open a book of poems.  A week earlier, I had been marveling at a dragonfly and a blade of grass.  Now, suddenly, serendipitously (I hadn't gone looking for "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors"), there it was: "a blade of grass."

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Yet, there was one more step to take.  A blade of grass.  A dragonfly. Something was nagging at me.  In poetry, one thing always leads to another.  Ah, yes, a dragonfly:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
        For know, all things
        Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
    Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (c. 556-c. 468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

One of the joys of poetry is the way in which a poem you have read remains inside of you, waiting patiently.  A poem from 17th century Japan.  A poem written by an Irish poet in the 20th century.  A poem born in Greece 2,500 years ago.

It is all a matter of a blade of grass.  Or of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Thursday, May 20, 2021

May

In my previous post, we visited my favorite April poem: Patrick Kavanagh's "Wet Evening in April."  A poem haunted by melancholy. But a serene and peaceful melancholy, a lovely melancholy.  This is never a bad thing.  Like April. 

May is a different matter.  As it happens, Kavanagh wrote a fine short poem about May as well:

       Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.  Ibid, page 271.

In May we enter the green world again.  The meadow grass sways in green waves.  The tunnels of trees continue their annual interlacing, each tree extending its boughs a bit each year, as overhead the green grows deeper.  And, as I report here every May, the ants have once again commenced their kingdom building, burrowing away in the darkness, erecting pyramids of sand in the green world above.

Gilbert Adams (1906-1996), "The Cotswolds from Park Leys" (1958)

I am quite fond of "Consider the Grass Growing."  But, as I have noted here in the past, this is my favorite May poem:

                  The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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

Larkin's "unresting castles" always bring to mind my favorite November poem, Wallace Stevens' "The Region November."  The two poems seem made for each other.  Both consist of twelve lines.  In both, trees "thresh" and "sway."  And, wonderfully, their final lines echo one another with lovely triple repetitions.  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  "The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying."

Samuel Llewellyn (1858-1941), "Sailing at Blakeney (c. 1938)

In May, a bright yellow-green inch-long or so spray of soft needles emerges at the tip of each twig on each branch of certain types of pine trees. "Nature's first green is gold."  In the midst of my seventh decade, I often think that I have spent most of that time sleepwalking through the World.  How long it took for me to take notice of those soft green needles!

I was again shaken out of my sleep yesterday afternoon.  As I walked beneath a madrona tree, tiny white berries pattered down around me from the boughs overhead.  But they weren't berries.  I picked one up and discovered it was a flower: a creamy-white, bell-like hollow globe, about a quarter-inch or less in diameter.  The flowers had fallen from large clusters high up in the tree.

                       Reciprocity

I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

A haiku written by Bashō is prefaced by a headnote which consists of "a sentence that often appears in Taoist classics, although Bashō probably took it from a poem by the Confucian philosopher Ch'eng Ming-tao."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 153.)  The headnote is this: "As we look calmly, we see everything is content with itself."

Arthur Friedenson (1872-1955), "On the River at Wareham, Dorset"

Thursday, April 29, 2021

April

I'm certain I'm not the only young man or woman whose budding interest in poetry was quickened by happening upon the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (Boni and Liveright 1922).

I seem to recall that the presence of April, my birth month, played some role in why I was smitten with the lines.  But I could be misremembering.  On the other hand, I was a melancholy, bookish lad (some things never change), so I suspect my recollection may be accurate.  In any case, the lines have remained with me for nearly fifty years, even though my affections have long since migrated from The Waste Land to Four Quartets.

All of which leads (in a roundabout fashion), dear ever-patient readers, to our annual visit to my favorite April poem:

                         Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was originally published on April 19, 1952, in Kavanagh's Weekly.  Ibid, page 280.

Allan Gwynne-Jones (1892-1982), "Spring Evening, Froxfield"

I suppose one might argue that "Wet Evening in April" is not a true "April poem" at all.  One expects something along these lines: "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  Or something even more effulgent and, yes, flowery:

                                   April, 1885

Wanton with long delay the gay spring leaping cometh;
The blackthorn starreth now his bough on the eve of May:
All day in the sweet box-tree the bee for pleasure hummeth:
The cuckoo sends afloat his note on the air all day.

Now dewy nights again and rain in gentle shower
At root of tree and flower have quenched the winter's drouth.
On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower
In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling south.

Robert Bridges, The Shorter Poems (George Bell & Sons 1890). Caught up in his enthusiasm for the month, Bridges includes sprightly internal rhymes within the first five lines.

Or perhaps something more restrained, but still evocative of the month's beautiful and hopeful course:

                    April

Exactly: where the winter was
The spring has come: I see her now
In the fields, and as she goes
The flowers spring, nobody knows how.

C. H. Sisson, What and Who (Carcanet Press 1994).

Mind you, I am quite fond of each of these poems, and they have appeared here on more than one occasion.  Still, April would not be April without its characteristic tinge of melancholy.  All of those cherry, plum, and pear petals drifting down beneath a blue sky, carpeting the green grass and the sidewalks.  It's wonderful how April and October share a similar bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness, isn't it?  Every six months, year after year, the falling of petals and the falling of leaves.  Trying to tell us something.

William Wood (1877-1958), "April Weather"

Ah, well, everything in the World and in our life eventually comes around to our evanescence, and the evanescence of the beautiful particulars that surround us.  "But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  (William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (January 3, 1787), in James King and Charles Ryskamp (editors), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Volume III: Letters 1787-1791 (Oxford University Press 1982), pages 5-6.)  This is lovely, but perhaps too dramatic.  Life is a matter of petals and of leaves.  And of gratitude.

          Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green —
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering —
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994), page 68.

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Friday, April 16, 2021

Present

I am an escapist.  The past month I've spent a great deal of time in 17th century Japan in the company of Gensei, a Buddhist monk-poet, and in Victorian England in the company of Christina Rossetti.  From what world am I fleeing?  I suspect you know.

"I have not yet looked at the newspaper.  Generally I leave it till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife.  I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Archibald Constable & Co. 1903), page 7.

Unlike Henry Ryecroft, I am not amused by what appears in the newspapers (or in their modern electronic successors).  Hence, I am content to leave news out of my life entirely.  "Where, to me, is the loss/Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard."  (Mary Coleridge, "No Newspapers.")  Of course, in this day and age snippets inevitably seep through -- insidious, noisome.  Our life is now akin to being forever stranded in an airport departure lounge, forced to listen to the ever-present cable news presenters dissembling from an unasked-for television screen hovering in the air somewhere above us.  Ah, welladay!

But we have it within us to live a seemlier life, a life of peace and quiet, of small things.

Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough --
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.

Gensei (1623-1668) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei (Columbia University Press 1983), page 70.  The poem is untitled.

"The point in life is to know what's enough."  Exactly. "September 1 -- the beards of Thistle & dandelions flying above the lonely mountains like life, & I saw them thro' the Trees skimming the lake like Swallows."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 799 (September, 1800).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

On his walk, Gensei misses nothing.  "In the deep lanes, few people in sight;/the dog barks when anyone comes or goes."  A mere commonplace?  But perhaps Gensei is echoing a line in a poem written in China twelve centuries earlier by T'ao Ch'ien (who was revered by Japanese poets): "A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes."  ("Returning to the Fields" (line 15) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 78.)  Or perhaps he is simply (and not so simply) paying attention to the World.  Never underestimate the commonplace, the quotidian.  These terms are not pejorative.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence: see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Poems, 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

While out walking yesterday afternoon I heard no larks singing in the cloudless sky.  But I did hear an unseen woodpecker far off in the woods, hammering.  A small thing.  "There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltring [sic] Trees, I could Invest every leaf with Awe."  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Notebook Entry 1510 (September, 1803).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

An aside, in closing.  I am ever in search of those who have found serenity and equanimity.  This is why I have long been fond of Gensei, and of his poetry.  Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly came upon this, which was previously unknown to me.

     Homage to Gensei

Last night I lay awake
From some sound in the night
And pictured I could take
(Knowing that I could not)
The firm and quiet way
Of the gentle monk Gensei,
Who watched from his Grass Hill
(Three hundred years away)
Beneath a favorite tree,
Or from his leaky hut,
Travels of crow, cloud, sail;
With some food and wine
Welcomed the always rare
Visit from old friends; wrote
His poems, though unwell
Much of the time; read; gave
Lessons, again while sick,
Kept clear of pedantry
(And all he wrote of it
Rings true of it today),
With his goose-foot walking stick
To keep him company
Took walks, kept his mind free
And agile as the air,
Transcending tragedy,
Under his bent old pine
With writing brush in hand
Quiet at close of day
Saw out the evening sun
Across the shadowy land.
     *        *        *        *        *   
Slight rustlings in a tree
And a slow car going by
Returned me to what's mine,
What it had all come to,
What I still had to do
With my own dwindling days.

Alan Stephens, Collected Poems, 1958-1998 (Dowitcher Press 2012).  The ellipses are in the original text.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Poetry

As I have noted here before, a poem that has moved us remains with us, and can return at any time, unexpectedly and unaccountably. Last night, this floated up:

             Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

I have no idea why this arrived when it did.  But I was delighted.  It was with me as I fell asleep, and it greeted me when I awoke this morning.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A City Garden" (1940)

Poems live on inside you.  They accumulate.  Over time, they establish ever-changing connections with you and with each other. One poem leads to another: they travel outward, then circle back again.  This never stops.  They become stepping stones as you make your way through the World.  Yes, life is life, poetry is poetry, the World is the World.  But these small daily journeys -- many-pathed, never the same -- all add up.

Like today, for instance.  Five bright red tulips, the first of the year. Further on, an azalea bush, covered with white flowers that were not there a week ago.  And, all around, unceasing birdsong, pink-white magnolia blossoms in the blue sky.

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Today I discovered that this is my thousandth post.  Imagine that.  All of these poems, paintings, and stray thoughts sent out into the ether for eleven years.  To what end?  The beautiful particulars of the World noted in passing, and with gratitude.  And, speaking of gratitude: thank you, dear readers.

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Harold Jones (1904-1992), "The Black Door" (1935)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Fragments

Recently I've been spending time with The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation.  Published in 1938, and edited by T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, it contains short lyric poems and epigrams, as well as excerpts from epics, long poems, and plays.  Whenever I visit the Greek world I am reminded that human nature has never changed, and never will.  Our capacities for good and evil, nobility and folly, and everything in between, remain constant. 

Another anthology of Greek verse to which I often return is F. L. Lucas' Greek Poetry for Everyman.  The epigraph of the volume consists of an untitled poem by Lucas:

Where lowlands stretch for ever,
Rank pasture, mud-banked river,
And bullocks flick and browse,
     And flies carouse;
Or the city's smoke-pall thickens
And the sullied sunlight sickens --
There the heart cries "How far
     The mountains are!"

Till, on some windless even,
Vast cloud-peaks rampart Heaven,
And sunset hues with rose
     Their timeless snows;
Above this age's shuffle,
Its buzz, and rush, and scuffle,
So towers, far off, at peace,
     The world of Greece.

F. L. Lucas (editor and translator), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page vii.

By returning to the verse of ancient Greece (and of the Hellenistic world) am I abandoning the modern world, while romanticizing -- or imagining -- a world of golden light that may have never existed?  But of course.  Why not?

Leopold Rothaug (1868-1959), "Classical Landscape" (1939)

Beauty and Truth present themselves to us in fragments, not all at once in a seamless web.  If such a seamless web exists, it is beyond our ken in this World.  Now and then we glimpse scattered threads, or what might be emerging patterns.  To use a phrase from William James which I quoted in my most recent post: "higher energies filter in."  (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green, and Co. 1902), page 519.)  Still, fragmentary Beauty and Truth are enough to keep one occupied for a lifetime.

Such is the case with Greek verse, a great deal of which survives only in fragments: the lovely, beguiling, affecting remnants of otherwise lost poems and plays.  In returning to The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation this time around, I have been reading fragments of plays, known only by their titles (if that) and a few surviving scattered lines.  The lines quoted hereafter all come from these vanished works.  Unavoidably out of context, but, in their isolation, gemlike.

Last peaks of the world, beyond all seas,
Wellsprings of night, and gleams of opened heaven,
The old garden of the sun.

Sophocles (translated by Gilbert Murray), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 385.

Yes, of course: the golden light, wine-dark sea, and star-filled sky of Greece.  The eternal Hesperian gardens we all long for.  But there is a simpler, more down-to-earth side to this Paradise as well:

                                        Ah, what joy
Can out-joy this -- to reach the land -- and then
Safe lodged, with happy drowsing sense to hear
The raindrops pattering on the roof outside!

Sophocles (translated by Walter Headlam), Ibid, page 383.

The rainy evening described by Sophocles is part of the World of lovely commonplaces that one comes across so often in these fragments, and also, for instance, in the epigrams of The Greek Anthology.  A reminder that one of the things that enchants us about the Greek world is its day-to-day intertwining of life and art.

There is no comfort in adversity
More sweet than Art affords.  The studious mind
Poising in meditation, there is fixed,
And sails beyond its troubles unperceiving.

Amphis (4th century B.C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), Ibid, page 526.

But another thread winds in and out of the beautiful fragments as well, never out of sight or mind.

Alas, how right the ancient saying is:
We, who are old, are nothing else but noise
And shape.  Like mimicries of dreams we go,
And have no wits, although we think us wise.

Euripides (translated by C. M. Bowra), Ibid, page 455.

Hugo Darnaut (1851-1937), "Sunken Splendor" (1900)

"Mimicries of dreams."  Even an idealized Greece would not be Greece without an abiding and pervasive awareness of our evanescence.

But my fate, on some throbbing wheel of God,
Always must rise and fall, and change its being:
As the moon's image never two nights long
May in one station rest: out of the dark
The young face grows, still lovelier, still more perfect,
Then at the noblest of her shining, back 
She melts and comes again to nothingness.

Sophocles (translated by Gilbert Murray), Ibid, page 384.

It ought not to take a year of plague to remind us of our mortality.  Any good poet has death on his or her mind.  "The paradise of Flowers' and Butterflies' Spirits."  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1736 (December 1803).)  "A rainbow balanced on an empty house in a verdant combe."  (Philippe Jaccottet, The Second Seedtime: Notebooks, 1980-1994 (translated by Tess Lewis) (Seagull Books 2017), page 150.)  In this World, how could it be otherwise?  Why would we want it to be otherwise?

Mourning your dearest friends, be wise in grief,
They are not dead, but on that single road
Which all are bound to travel, gone before.
We too, in after days, shall overtake them;
One road-house shall receive us, entered in
To lodge together for the rest of time.

Antiphanes (4th century B.C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), Ibid, page 518.

There is no turning away.  Greek verse is full of touching laments and epitaphs for the departed.  And there is no shortage of contemplations upon the dark, endless silence of death, where all are shorn of memories.  "Emptily from here to Hades floats the echo,/Hushed among the dead.  My voice goes down the night."  (Erinna (4th century B.C.) (translated by C. M. Bowra), Ibid, page 522.)  The poets, in all times and in all places, tell us there can be no turning away.  "And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?  But enough of that -- I'm off to bed."  (Bashō (1644-1694), "Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling," in Burton Watson (translator), Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life (Shambhala 2002), page 95.)

No mortal is born free from suffering: --
He buries children, and begets him new,
And also dies himself.  And yet men grieve
At bringing earth to earth!  It is Fate's will
To reap Life's harvest like the fruited ear,
That one should be, one not.  Where is there cause
For grief, when only 'tis the path of Nature?
Nothing is dread that Fate makes necessary.

Euripides (translated by Walter Headlam), Ibid, page 461.

Leopold Rothaug, "Far Away" (1945)

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Seven: Arrival

Last week the first crocuses appeared: two clumps of light purple, dark purple, and white flowers in the muddy far corner of a neighbor's front yard, next to the sidewalk.  This week they have arrived in earnest, blooming everywhere, increasing in number by the day.  More tentatively, a few daffodils with small yellow flowers have emerged here and there.  The tulips still bide their time.

All of this can be explained perfectly well by science, of course.  Or perhaps not.

            The Year's Awakening

How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes' bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth's apparelling;
        O vespering bird, how do you know,
                How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction's strength,
And day put on some moments' length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
        O crocus root, how do you know,
                How do you know?

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries, with Miscellaneous Pieces (Macmillan 1914).

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James is coy.  One senses that he has a certain sympathy with mysticism (which, for me, is the heart of the book), but he generally remains circumspect with respect to his own feelings until he reaches his "Conclusions."  Then, in the final paragraph, he writes:

"The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in.  By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green, and Co. 1902), page 519.

There are those who will think that James does not go far enough. Others will think that he goes too far.  I am simply grateful for this thoughtful articulation of a reasonable way to look at, and live in, the World.  I might quibble with "consciousness" as being too intellectual, abstract, or psychological.  On the other hand, James' philosophy and writings are grounded in psychology (or so it seems to me), so I can understand why he would use the word.  I would lean more toward the presence of "other worlds" of "existence" or "being," rather than "consciousness."  Using either of those words brings immanence into consideration.  But I am far out of my depth at this point.  To wit: please don't ask me what "existence," "being," or "immanence" mean.  I will have no answer.  I have only inarticulable inklings about these things.

Edward Salter (1835-1934), "Dolerw House and Gardens" (1876)

There is one fine phrase of James' that I have no quibble with whatsoever: "higher energies filter in."  As a Wordsworthian pantheist, I find this thought to be wholly congenial, and true.  For instance: spring is here, regardless of the date on the calendar. Higher energies filter in, bearing messages.  We only need to step out the door to receive them.

          A Contemplation upon Flowers

Brave flowers -- that I could gallant it like you,
          And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless shew,
          And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud:  you know your birth:
For your embroidered garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
          Would have it ever spring:
My fate would know no winter, never die,
          Nor think of such a thing.
Oh, that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

Oh, teach me to see death and not to fear,
          But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
          And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers, then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

Henry King (1592-1669), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics from the Original Texts (William Sloane 1950).

William James continues the paragraph quoted above as follows:

"I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all.  But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word 'bosh!'  Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow 'scientific' bounds.  Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament, -- more intricately built than physical science allows."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, page 519 (italics in original text).

John Knight (1842-1908), "English Landscape"

James ends the final paragraph of his "Conclusions" with these words (which immediately follow the quotation above):

"So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express.  Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?"

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, p. 519.

The last sentence is absolutely wonderful.  It is revealing (and moving) to see James speak of "faithfulness" in the context of the intellectually distancing term "over-belief."  And the sudden appearance of "God" is startling.  The sentence is beautiful, extraordinary. 

                              In the Fields

Lord, when I look at lovely things which pass,
     Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
     Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves,
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
     And if there is
Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing
     Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
     Over the fields.  They come in Spring.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

Alfred East (1844-1913), "A Bend in the River"

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Noted In Passing

The Saturday before last was a changeable day.  Lines of dark rain squalls moved from the southwest to the northeast across Puget Sound, followed by intervals of open skies and sunlight.  Lovely.  Not unusual in this part of the world at this time of year.  Ah, but then came the denouement.

At around 4:50 (I looked at my watch), the sun emerged from beneath the last line of white (no longer grey-hearted) clouds over the waters of the Sound.  I happened to be out on my walk, so I stopped beneath a tall, leafless maple to watch the sunset.  However, it was the sky, not the sun, that caught my eye.  Pale blue-yellow at the horizon (just above the Olympic Mountains), it proceeded upward through changing shades of blue.  I followed the deepening progression: powder blue, cornflower blue, azure.  But, at the zenith  -- my head tilted back, the tangled lattice of empty branches overhead set against the depth of the sky -- the names of colors no longer held any meaning.  The eloquent blueness of that patch of sky was beyond the reach of words.  At such times, the only appropriate response is to pay attention, to not turn away.  There is nothing to be said.

A thought by Philippe Jaccottet which appeared in my last post comes to mind: "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)  A thought by Ludwig Wittgenstein which has appeared here on numerous occasions comes to mind as well: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7 (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)  An alternative translation: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Translated by C. K. Ogden.)  Yet, here I am, dear readers, providing you with a ten-day old, useless weather report, ending with an inadequate paean to the blue sky.  

Perhaps it is best to approach the beautiful particulars of the World aslant, lest we betray them.

                      The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

James Craig (1877-1944), "The Kerry Coast" (c. 1928)

"There is a glass bowl with ten goldfish in it on my desk.  I am gazing at it from my bed, as the pain assaults me.  I feel the pain and see the beauty."  Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) wrote this journal entry on April 15, 1901.  It appears in A Drop of Ink, a journal he wrote from January 24 through May 21, 1901.  His entries over this period were published in the Tokyo daily newspaper Nihon as he wrote them. (Janine Beichman-Yamamoto, "Masaoka Shiki's A Drop of Ink," Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 30, Number 3 (1975), pages 291-315.)  Shiki had been suffering from tuberculosis since 1889, and had been essentially bedridden since 1897.  He died on September 19, 1902, at the age of 34 -- one year and five months after writing this entry.

The poets remind us again and again: Pay attention.  Do not turn away.

               A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Collected Poems.

Where would we be without the blue sky, come what may?

"A certain hermit once said, 'There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.'  I can understand why he should have felt that way."

Kenkō (1283-1350), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 20, in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 22.

John William Inchbold (1830-1888)
"A Study, in March" (c. 1855)

Between Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon eight or so inches of snow fell.  A warming spell began on Sunday, and on Monday the back garden was alive with birds.  Robins and sparrows, of course. But I also saw a dove beside a bare rose bush, pecking the snowy ground, and a woodpecker atop a post, watching the activity.  They may have been surprised into shelter and silence by the snow, but now -- darting back and forth in brief flight, chattering -- they had no air of winter about them.

Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

William Wordsworth, seventh stanza of "Expostulation and Reply," in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Four (Oxford University Press 1947).

And so we make our way through the World.  Beneath an ever-changing sky, blue at times.

     Butterflies a-flutter,
The lullaby changes again and again
     As she walks along.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume Two (Hokuseido Press 1964), page 88.

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

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Significance

A distant, recurring sound on an autumn night.  A human sound, redolent, mysterious, evanescent.

             In Early Autumn, Alone at Night

The leaves of the paulownia move in the cool breeze;
The neighbour's fulling mallet sends out the voice of autumn.
I turn and sleep beneath the eaves;
Waking, the moonlight is half across my couch.  

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 179.

Another translation of the poem:

            Early Autumn, Alone at Night

Parasol tree by the well, cold leaves stirring;
nearby fulling mallets that speak an autumn sound:
I sleep alone facing the eaves,
wake to find moonlight over half the bed.

Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (edited and translated by Burton Watson) (Columbia University Press 2000), page 7.

The sound of fulling mallets (or, as they are also called, "fulling blocks") in the night signifies autumn in traditional Chinese poems. "It was customary in the autumn to pound cloth in the process known as fulling to make it suitable for use in winter clothes."  (Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 176.) Often, the sound is made by women who are preparing cloth for use in the winter clothes of their lovers or husbands, who are away in the army, anticipating a winter campaign.

A small thing?  Perhaps.  But it gives one pause.  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)

Claude Hayes (1852-1922), "Evensong" (1903)

Given the considerable influence of Chinese poetry (particularly the poetry of the T'ang dynasty) on Japanese poetry, fulling blocks are also a common presence in Japanese poems (both waka and haiku) of autumn.  (In Japan, Po Chü-i was the most popular T'ang dynasty poet.  Thus, it is likely that the poem which appears above was well known to Japanese poets.)  The Japanese word for fulling blocks is kinuta. "Kinuta, a wooden mallet and block used to full cloth in the autumn. In poetry, the sound of fulling was associated with the loneliness of a woman left waiting for a traveling husband." (Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 136.)

          Fulling Block

When the wind passes
     in the pines, autumn already
          seems lonely enough —
and then a fulling block echoes
     through Tamakawa Village.

Minamoto no Toshiyori (1055-1129) (translated by Steven Carter), Ibid, page 136.

The poem above is a waka, but the theme appears in haiku as well. For instance:

     Walking along the narrow path,
Listening to the far-off
     Fulling block.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Winter-Autumn, page 32.

Buson is chronologically the second of the four traditional great haiku poets: he follows Bashō, and precedes Issa.  The fourth of the greats is Shiki, who wrote this:

     In one house,
A voice of weeping,
     The sound of the fulling block.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 34.

A disembodied sound from somewhere out in the night.  Yet there is a slender human thread.  One pays attention.

     Unheard, these two days,
The fulling block
     Of my neighbour.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 336.

George Clausen (1852-1944), "The Village Green at Night"

The World consists of slender threads, doesn't it?  Earlier this week, I saw two sparrows bathing in a puddle, in the morning sun.  I couldn't help but feel they were the first sign of Spring.  Yesterday I noticed that buds have appeared on a row of pear trees in front of a nearby house.  The blue herons have returned to their nests high in the tall pines beside the Ship Canal.  And soon the crocuses will begin to emerge.  "From now on, listening only to the flowers' counsel, antecedent to all knowledge . . ."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry in September, 1983 (ellipses in the original text), in Philippe Jaccottet, The Second Seedtime: Notebooks 1980-1994 (Seagull Books 2017), page 57.)

Why should little things be blamed?
Little things for grace are famed;
Love, the winged and the wild,
Love is but a little child.

Anonymous (translated by Thomas Percival Rogers), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (John Murray 1849), page 259.

Slender threads.  Little things.  They all add up.

     The clear voice 
Of the fulling block echoes up
     To the Northern Stars.

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, p. 31.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"