Wednesday, May 24, 2023


It is that time of year once again: I step out the front door, walk for an hour or so, and return, all the while accompanied by birdsong (occasionally punctuated by a crow's caw-caw-caw from off in the distance, or from directly above -- out of the blue).  In the meadows, solitary birds now and then fly up out of the wild grass or hop down a path, voiceless.  But the surrounding woods are full of unseen, unceasing choristers.

                    For Their Own Sake

Come down to the woods where the buds burst
Into fragrances, where the leaves make havoc
Of cloudy skies.  Listen to birds
Obeying their instincts but also singing
For singing's sake.  By the same token
Let us be silent for silence's sake,
Watching the buds, hearing the break
Free of fledgelings, the branches swinging
The sun, and never a word need be spoken.

Elizabeth Jennings, Consequently I Rejoice (Carcanet 1977).

This comes to mind: "the calm oblivious tendencies/Of Nature."  (William Wordsworth, The Excursion, Book I ("The Wanderer"), lines 963-964 (1814).)  One of those gnomic utterances found so often in the younger Wordsworth (of whom I am fond, although I recognize that others may find him tiresome).  "Oblivious" has always given me pause.  For instance, how does one reconcile it with immanence?  One can lose one's way in trying to unravel the euphoria and contradictions of the marvelous Wordsworthian-Coleridgean pantheism that emerged in 1797, and flourished for a few charmed years.

Jennings' poem suggests a reasonable approach: "oblivious" or not, the beautiful particulars of the World are enough in themselves, "for their own sake."  Her final words are exactly right: ". . . and never a word need be spoken."  For another perspective, we can turn to a lovely poem that has appeared here on more than one occasion: a different note, but in the same neighborhood.


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).

Winter over, the robins no longer gather in flocks.  Leaving a meadow and passing through a dark grove of pines, one hears them singing high overhead, each in its own tree.
George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

On a breezy day, the new deep-green grass in the meadows turns silver as it sways and flows in the morning or afternoon sunlight.  And the sound of the rising and falling and threshing silver-green waves, how does one describe that?  A rustling?  A whispering?  A sighing?  A soughing?  A susurration?  All of the above.  But words ultimately fail, don't they?  Elizabeth Jennings is correct: ". . . and never a word need be spoken."  You simply have to be there.  No words are necessary.  No words are sufficient.

My favorite poem of May is Philip Larkin's "The Trees," to which I owe "threshing" in the paragraph immediately above.  The source is the poem's final stanza: "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).)  However, when it comes to the grass of the meadows in May, I return each year to this:

          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 2005).  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.  Ibid, page 271.

May is an effulgent yet wistful month.  It does not have the wistful bittersweetness, or the bittersweet wistfulness, of, say, September or October: Spring continues to burgeon.  But the fallen cherry, plum, and magnolia petals lay scattered on the sidewalks, strewn across the grass.  On the other hand, along the paths and in the glades five-petaled pink wild roses (called the "Nootka rose" in this part of the world) and purple lupines are in bloom.  The "unresting castles" soon will be in their "fullgrown thickness" of green.  Ah, yes: "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 1957), Notebook Entry 1736 (December 1803).)

                       The One

Green, blue, yellow and red --
God is down in the swamps and marshes,
Sensational as April and almost incred-
     ible the flowering of our catharsis.
A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked;
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals.  A primrose, a violet,
A violent wild iris -- but mostly anonymous performers,
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems.  By splitting "incredible" in lines three and four, Kavanagh is able to contrive a sonnet.  (And the rhyming of "marshes" and "catharsis" in lines two and four is no mean feat either.)  "The One" was written during Kavanagh's ecstatic "Canal Bank period" of 1955 through 1958, which was prompted by his survival after a brush with lung cancer (with accompanying surgery) in March and April of 1955.  Ibid, page 284.  The poem was first published in the journal Nonplus in October of 1959.  Ibid, page 286.

Anne Isabella Brooke (1916-2002)
"Wharfedale From Above Bolton Abbey" (c. 1954)

"All things around us are asking for our apprehension, working for our enlightenment.  But our thoughts are of folly.  What is worse, every day, and many times in the day, we are enlightened, we are Buddha, a poet, -- but do not know it, and remain an ordinary man.  For our sake haiku isolate, as far as it is possible, significance from the mere brute fact or circumstance.  It is a single finger pointing to the moon.  If you say it is only a finger, and often not a very beautiful one at that, this is so.  If the hand is beautiful and bejeweled, we may forget what it is pointing at.  Recording a conversation with Blake, [Henry] Crabb Robinson gives us an example of the indifference, or rather the cowardice, of average human nature, in its failure to recognize truth, poetry, when confronted with it in its unornamented form; the lines he quotes from Wordsworth are a "haiku."  'I had been in the habit, when reading this marvellous Ode to friends, to omit one or two passages, especially that beginning,
          But there's a Tree, of many, one,
     A single field
          That I have looked upon
lest I should be rendered ridiculous, being unable to explain precisely what I admired.  Not that I acknowledged this to be a fair test.  But with Blake I could fear nothing of the kind.  And it was this very stanza which threw him almost into a hysterical rapture'."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume III: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), pages i-ii.  The passage quoted by Blyth from Henry Crabb Robinson's papers may be found in Arthur Symons, William Blake (Archibald Constable and Company 1907), pages 296-297 ("Extracts from the Diary, Letters, and Reminiscences of Henry Crabb Robinson").  The "Ode" referred to by Crabb Robinson is "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

Of course, Blyth's intention is to make a case for the unique beauty and power of haiku.  This was, in fact, his mission in life.  In my humble opinion, Blyth is entirely correct in his assessment of the Beauty and Truth that may be found in the best haiku, and of the ability of haiku to provide enlightenment (regardless of whether or not such enlightenment occurs within the context of Buddhism).  However, as Blyth suggests in this passage (and as he makes clear throughout his writings), the best poetry, in all places and at all times, "is a single finger pointing to the moon."  Thus, his observations on haiku are intertwined with references to, and comparisons with, English poetry and Chinese poetry in particular, and world literature and philosophy in general.  This catholic approach is one of the features which (again, in my humble opinion) makes his works so interesting, provocative, and, yes, wise, and gives them such charm.

All of which leads me (lengthily) to this:


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

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

"Now" perfectly complements the observations made by Blyth in the passage quoted above.  "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall."  Consider this from Blyth: "All things around us are asking for our apprehension, working for our enlightenment."  Or this: "every day, and many times in the day, we are enlightened, we are Buddha, a poet, -- but do not know it, and remain an ordinary man."  As I noted above, although Blyth is making a case for the beauty and power of haiku, his observations are arguably applicable to all of the best poetry (although I certainly agree that haiku does have a special beauty and power that is the product of a unique and wonderful culture and language).

Leonard Pike (1887-1959), "The Chasing Shadows"

Who knows why we are here in this "paradise of Flowers' and Butterflies' Spirits."  During the short time we have, we should pay attention, and -- above all -- be grateful.  Speaking for myself, I fail each day.  But the poets daily remind me to attend to the World.


That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

One sometimes feels at a loss.  But then you happen upon something like this:

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice seedlings.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume II: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 170.

And the reflections of the stars float with the fallen cherry petals on the water, among the rice seedlings.

 Herbert Hughes-Stanton (1870-1937)
"The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Peace and Quiet

All I ask for in life is peace and quiet, accompanied by an occasional fugitive encounter with Beauty and Truth.  How does one go about pursuing these elusive will-o'-the-wisps?  I have no wisdom to impart on this score.  What do I know?  I go for a daily walk in the green and blue and parti-colored World.  Each day I read one or two poems.  I try to pay attention.  Above all, I try to be grateful.  But failure is an everyday occurrence.  

This course of action is no doubt simplistic and unambitious (and, some might argue, solipsistic).  But I have wise and reliable guides.  This entails looking backwards.  How presumptuous and narrow-minded it is to imagine that we inhabitants of the contemporary world know more about life than those who have preceded us.  Everything we need to know about how to live can be found in the past.  We moderns have nothing to add.

From early days I have been at odds with the world;
My instinctive love is hills and mountains.
By mischance I fell into the dusty net
And was thirteen years away from home.
The migrant bird longs for its native grove.
The fish in the pond recalls the former depths.
Now I have cleared some land to the south of town;
Simplicity intact, I have returned to farm.
The land I own amounts to a couple of acres.
The thatched-roof house has four or five rooms.
Elms and willows shade the eaves in back,
Peach and plum stretch out before the hall.
Distant villages are lost in haze,
Above the houses smoke hangs in the air.
A dog is barking somewhere in a hidden lane,
A cock crows from the top of a mulberry tree.
My home remains unsoiled by worldly dust;
Within bare rooms I have my peace of mind.
For long I was a prisoner in a cage,
And now I have my freedom back again.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by James Hightower), in James Hightower, The Poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (Oxford University Press 1970), page 50.  The poem (which is untitled) is the first poem in a five-poem sequence titled "Returning to the Farm to Dwell."  Ibid, page 50.

"Thirteen years away from home" refers to T'ao Ch'ien's career as a government official, a position he qualified for by passing a rigorous series of civil service examinations (which required extensive knowledge of, and the ability to skillfully write, poetry).  (I described these examinations, as well as the typical course of a governmental career in China, in a previous post.)  It is fortunate that T'ao Ch'ien escaped "the dusty net" of the world.  He is arguably the finest Chinese lyrical (shih) poet prior to the well-known poets of the T'ang Dynasty three to four centuries later (Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Po Chü-i, and Han-shan).  But he is perhaps equally revered in China for the decision he made to abandon his bureaucratic career in order to return to the country to become a farmer.  He was not a wealthy gentleman-farmer.  He farmed to make a living, and he and his family suffered failed crops and the loss of a home to fire.  The vicissitudes and joys of this life are documented in his poems, and, although occasional misgivings and laments may be found in the poetry, he remained true to his commitment.

Of course, poets at all times and in all places have longed for what T'ao Ch'ien longed for in Fourth and Fifth Century China: to be free of "the dusty net" and of "worldly dust."

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
   In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
   Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
   Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
   And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics, From the Original Texts (Longmans, Green and Co. 1928), page 270.  Alas, I fear that Devereux never found his "unhaunted desert": his short and tempestuous life ended with a beheading for a plot against Queen Elizabeth I.  But perhaps he at least now lies "where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."

The pursuit of "content" is a recurring theme in Elizabethan poetry (together with love and death).  This makes sense: "content" seems to be more attainable, and less transitory, than the fickle, ever-changing chimera of "happiness" (whatever that is).

Were I a king, I could command content.
     Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares.
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,
     Nor words, nor wrongs, nor loves, nor hopes, nor fears.
A doubtful choice, of three things one to crave,
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), Ibid, page 110.

James Torrington Bell (1892-1970), "Hatton Farm, Inverarity"

Although T'ao Ch'ien was certainly influenced by Taoism, Confucianism, and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism, his decision to escape "the dusty net" was ultimately based upon his own sense of what was right for him, not upon philosophical or religious principles.  His reasons are articulated in the poem above, and we should take him at his word, for he was never one to equivocate or dissemble: he had always been "at odds with the world;" he wished to keep his "simplicity intact;" he sought "peace of mind" and "freedom."  Near the end of his life, he wrote his own prose "Elegy."  In it, he states: "There was little enough reward for my labor, but my mind enjoyed a constant leisure.  Content with Heaven and accepting my lot, I have lived out the years of my life. . . . Aware of my destined end, of which one cannot be ignorant, I find no cause for regret in this present transformation.  I have lived out my lifespan, and all my life I have desired quiet retirement.  Now that I am dying, an old man, what have I left to wish for?"  (Translated by James Hightower, in James Hightower, The Poetry of T'ao Ch'ien, page 6.)  He returns to these essential themes in nearly every poem he wrote.

Fall chrysanthemums have beautiful colors:
dew still on them, I pick the blossoms,
float them on this drowner of care --
it makes me feel farther than ever from the world.
Though I'm alone as I pour my wine,
when the cup's empty, somehow the jar tips itself.
The sun has set, all moving things stilled;
homing birds hurry to the woods, singing,
and I whistle jauntily by the eastern eaves --
another day I get to live this life.

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 136.  The poem is untitled.  It is the seventh poem in a sequence of twenty poems titled "Drinking Wine."  Ibid, page 134.  Watson provides this note to the phrase "this drowner of care" in the third line: "Literally, 'the thing for forgetting care,' one of T'ao's terms for wine.  The chrysanthemum was believed to have medicinal properties."  Ibid, page 136.

As I noted above, those who have preceded us have provided us with all we need to know about how to live.  Thus, for instance, approximately two centuries prior to T'ao Ch'ien's time, a Roman emperor wrote this (in Greek, the language of his Stoic teachers):

"A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and nowhere will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul: especially if he has that furniture within, the view of which immediately gives him the fullest tranquillity.  By tranquillity, I mean the most graceful order.  Allow yourself continually this retirement, and refresh and renew your self. . . . For the future, then, remember to retire into this little part of yourself.  Above all things, keep yourself from distraction, and intense desires. . . . Have these two thoughts ever the readiest in all emergencies: one, that 'the things themselves reach not to the soul, but stand without, still and motionless.  All your perturbation comes from inward opinions about them.'  The other, that 'all these things presently change, and shall be no more.'  Frequently recollect what changes thou hast observed.  The world is a continual change; life is opinion."

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

Given the sad and harrowing circumstances of his life, Ivor Gurney was not able to fashion a path to peace and quiet similar to that embodied in the lives and words of T'ao Ch'ien and Marcus Aurelius (who each, it should be said, had their own struggles and doubts).  And yet Gurney's poetry comes to mind as I think about the pursuit of peace and quiet, Beauty and Truth.  He did pursue them, and he sometimes -- albeit fitfully and briefly -- found them.

Soft rain beats upon my windows
Hardly hammering.
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war.

That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And the roar of the elms. . . .
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry's truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996), page 97.  The poem is untitled.  It was not published during Gurney's lifetime.  George Walter provides this note to the text of the poem: "undated manuscript on loose sheet.  A typescript version notes that this was 'written at Dartford, probably about 1926 or 1927'."  Ibid, page 105.  Gurney was confined in the City of London Mental Hospital (known as "Stone House") at Dartford (in Kent) from December of 1922 until his death in December of 1937.  The ellipses in line 7 appear in the manuscript.

Knowing what Gurney went through in his life, reading a poem such as this breaks one's heart.  The phrase "shelter of farms" in the last line leads naturally to this:

                    The Shelter from the Storm

And meantime fearing snow the flocks are brought in,
They are in the barn where stone tiles and wood shelter
From the harm shield; where the rosy-faced farmer's daughter
Goes to visit them.

She pats and fondles all her most favourite first.
then after that the shivering and unhappy ones --
Spreads hay, looks up at the noble and gray roof vast
And says 'This will stop storms.'

Her mind is with her books in the low-ceilinged kitchen
Where the twigs blaze. -- and she sees not sheep alone
of the Cotswold, but in the Italian shelters songs repeating
Herdsmen kind, from the blast gone.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems, page 92.  George Walter notes that the poem is found in a "group of manuscripts on loose sheets," with some of the sheets "dated September 1926."  Ibid, page 105.  The punctuation is as it appears in the manuscript.  The poem was not published during Gurney's lifetime.

[A side-note: I recommend Kate Kennedy's recent biography of Gurney: Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney (Princeton University Press 2021).  I also recommend Ivor Gurney: The Complete Poetical Works (Oxford University Press), the ongoing multi-volume edition of Gurney's poetry which is being wonderfully presented and edited by Philip Lancaster and Tim Kendall.  Volume I: March 1907-December 1918 was published in 2020, and four additional volumes are forthcoming.  Gurney deserves this attention.]

James Torrington Bell, "Farmhand Stacking Hay Stooks"

T'ao Ch'ien returns to his chrysanthemums beneath the eastern hedge and to homing birds at dusk in the following serene and simple poem, which captures the essence of the life he sought to live, yet reminds us that, in the end, words are -- quite rightly -- of no use.

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 (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 76.  This is the fifth poem in the twenty-poem "Drinking Wine" sequence.

The final two lines of the poem bring to mind a statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein which has appeared here on more than one occasion: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness), Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).)  An alternative translation (by C. K. Ogden) is: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Last week, I came across these words by Petrarch: "a soul serene and tranquil in itself fears not the coming of any shadow from without and is deaf to all the thunder of the world."  (Petrarch, De Secreto Conflictu Curarum Mearum (often referred to simply as "Secretum"), in William Draper (editor and translator), Petrarch's Secret, or The Soul's Conflict with Passion (Chatto & Windus 1911), page 104.)  Secretum is structured as three imaginary dialogues between Petrarch and Saint Augustine.  The words quoted above are spoken by Saint Augustine in the second dialogue.  A few pages prior to the passage, Petrarch has Saint Augustine say this: "If, however, the tumult of your mind within should once learn to calm itself down, believe me, this din and bustle around you, though it will strike upon your senses, will not touch your soul."  Ibid, page 98.  Petrarch's words and thoughts (put by him into the mouth of Saint Augustine) are a remarkable echo of the passage from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius which I quoted above.

       A nun takes the veil

        I have desired to go
            Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
        And a few lilies blow.

        And I have asked to be
            Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
        And out of the swing of the sea.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967), page 19.  "Blow" (line 4) is used in the now, alas, "archaic" sense of "to bloom."

The wisdom of the past is ever-present and ever-alive, a winding but continuous thread that is there for the finding and tracing, if we so choose.

James Torrington Bell, "Landscape"

Friday, March 3, 2023


Each year I grow fonder of the robins who spend the winter here, gathering into small flocks, making their way across the meadows and through the woodlands.  I suspect this fondness is partly a product of aging.  Growing up in Minnesota, I was always on the lookout for rarer, more colorful birds: cardinals and Baltimore orioles, for instance.  Robins were generally regarded as being lovable, but commonplace, with one exception: in the dark, cold, snowbound, and legendary Minnesota winters of yesteryear we all awaited "the first robin of Spring."

Ah, what an inattentive, distracted, and somnolent life I have lived! The robins stroll and peck and chatter with one another, the flock spread out widely across a bright green field on a sunny late winter afternoon: alone, but together; each one of them catching the slanting yellow light, each one of them unlike anything else in the World. Agleam.  I have been fast asleep.

                           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), page 71.  The poem was first published in March of 1923. Ibid, page 121.

"These dreams that take my breath away."  More on this anon.  But, in the meantime, here is something complementary to put beside "In the Fields":

"Lessons from the world around us: certain localities, certain moments, 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats.  An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait.'  But is there still the time, the patience to wait?  And is 'waiting' really the right word?"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.

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

At times, Charlotte Mew's poetry seems to echo the religious concerns found throughout Christina Rossetti's poetry.  However, there is a hesitation, a questioning, in Mew's poems which is seldom present in Rossetti's work (which can perhaps be described as devotional).  Thus, "In the Fields" begins with a query to God: "Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?"  Mew continues: "And if there is/Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing/Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?"  What might have seemed a straightforward hymn to Nature and Creation is transformed into something else entirely by those four lovely and remarkable lines. (By the way, "the strange heart of any everlasting thing" deserves a great deal of attention in itself.  "Strange heart"?  Wonderful.)

But I fear I am wandering too far into the much-to-be-avoided territory of explanation and explication.  It is the beguiling beauty of "these dreams that take my breath away" which captures me, and which in turn leads to this:

               Do Dreams Lie Deeper?

          His dust looks up to the changing sky
               Through daisies' eyes;
          And when a swallow flies
               Only so high
          He hears her going by
     As daisies do.  He does not die
In this brown earth where he was glad enough to lie.
          But looking up from that other bed,
     "There is something more my own," he said,
     "Than hands or feet or this restless head
          That must be buried when I am dead.
     The Trumpet may wake every other sleeper.
               Do dreams lie deeper --?
                    And what sunrise
     When these are shut shall open their little eyes?
     They are my children, they have very lovely faces --
          And how does one bury the breathless dreams?
          They are not of the earth and not of the sea,
They have no friends here but the flakes of the falling snow;
               You and I will go down two paces --
                    Where do they go?"

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems, pages 73-74.  The poem was first published in The Rambling Sailor (Poetry Bookshop 1929) after Mew's death in 1928.  

I confess that I have never known quite what to make of this, other than to say that I love it.  I do not propose to pick apart its many wonders.  But please compare "Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing/Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?" with this: "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  One senses the hesitation and questioning that I mentioned above.  But, again, it is the beauty which captures me.  "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  As well as this: "Do dreams lie deeper --?" And this: "You and I will go down two paces --/Where do they go?"

Once more, some thoughts by Philippe Jaccottet may be apt, not as a direct commentary on Mew's two poems, but as a kindred exploration of the World:

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience: the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history.  Can it therefore teach me no lesson -- outside the poetry in which it speaks --, offer me no directive in the way I conduct my life?

"As I reflect on all this I begin to see nonetheless that the poetic experience does give me direction, at least towards a sense of the high; and this is because I am quite naturally led to see poetry as a glimpse of the Highest and to regard it in a sense (and why not?) as it has been regarded from its very beginnings, as a mirror of the heavens."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (The Delos Press/The Menard Press 1997), page 157. The italics appear in the original text.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (1959)

"There is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being."  In his poetry and prose, Philippe Jaccottet is an eloquent, patient, and painstaking observer of the beautiful particulars of the World, but a key feature of his work is his continual recognition of the ineffable mystery that lies at the heart of the World.  Words will always fail us.

Dreams: absolute clarity coupled with evanescence.  Gone in an instant, never to be recalled.  "These dreams that take my breath away."  "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  Charlotte Mew was onto something.  But the mystery remains.

                     The Sunlit House

White through the gate it gleamed and slept
     In shuttered sunshine: the parched garden flowers,
Their fallen petals from the beds unswept,
     Like children unloved and ill-kept
               Dreamed through the hours.
Two blue hydrangeas by the blistered door, burned brown,
     Watched there and no one in the town
     Cared to go past it, night or day,
     Though why this was they wouldn't say.
But I, the stranger, knew that I must stay,
     Pace up the weed-grown paths and down,
     Till one afternoon -- there is just a doubt --
     But I fancy I heard a tiny shout --
     From an upper window a bird flew out --
               And I went my way.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems, page 55.  The poem was written before July 29, 1913, and was first published in 1921.  Ibid, page 117.

Philippe Jaccottet has also written of a garden:

"I should very much like to go beyond these meagre findings, to extract from these scattered signs an entire sentence which would act as a commandment.  I cannot.  I claimed in the past to be a 'servant of the visible world.'  Yet what I do is more like the work of a gardener tending a garden and too often neglecting it: the weeds of time.

"Where are the gods of this garden?  I sometimes see my uncertainties as the snowflakes whirled by the wind, stirred, blown upwards, abandoned, or the birds half obeying the wind, half playing with it, and offering us the sight of wings which are sometimes as black as night, sometimes gleaming with the reflection of some strange light.

"(So it would be possible to live without definite hopes, but not without help, with the thought -- so close to certainty -- that if there is a single hope, a single opening for man, it would not be refused to someone who had lived 'beneath this sky.')

"(The highest hope would be that the whole sky were really a gaze.)"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures, page 159.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

"The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  Consider living creatures -- none lives so long as man.  The May fly waits not for the evening, the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn.  What a wonderfully unhurried feeling it is to live even a single year in perfect serenity!  If that is not enough for you, you might live a thousand years and still feel it was but a single night's dream."

Kenkō (1283-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 7, in Donald Keene (editor and translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 7-8.

Perhaps we should think of this uncertain life as a series of dreams. If we are attentive -- and, above all else, grateful -- these dreams can take our breath away.

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 (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

All winter long, the robins have charmingly chattered amongst themselves about practical matters (the weather, the search for food, where to spend the night) as they walked and flitted across the meadows.  But, at this time of year, by ones and twos they fly up into the bare branches of the bordering trees and begin to sing.

          On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going.
From what quarter departed?  Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying --
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance.

Ryūsen Reisai (d. 1365) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury (editor), Poems of the Five Mountains (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.  Ury provides this note to the poem: "The poem begins with a Zen truism, which is expanded into a personal statement."  Ibid, page 33.

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

Sunday, February 5, 2023

In Passing

"Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?"  (Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101), "On a Boat, Awake at Night.")  One of the pleasures of reading classical Chinese lyric (shih) poetry is coming across lovely and evocative lines such as these.  This happens frequently.  Lines of this sort are not intended to be didactic, edifying, or admonitory.  Instead, they arrive quite naturally, as part and parcel of a contemplative poem that may be about, for instance, the beautiful particulars of the World in any season, parting from a friend, or simply passing through an ordinary day.

Interestingly, one sees the same thing occur in classical Japanese poetry and in the poems of The Greek Anthology.  One also notices that the classical Chinese, Japanese, and Greek lyric forms share a common feature: brevity.  The two predominant Chinese lyric forms are the chüeh-chü (four lines) and the lü-shih (eight lines).  The two basic Japanese lyric forms are the waka (five lines and 31 syllables) and the haiku (three lines and 17 syllables). The poems in The Greek Anthology generally range between two, four, six, or eight lines.  In addition, all of these short forms are governed by strict prosodic requirements.  Does this concision and craft encourage pensive reflection?

My thoughts are prompted by revisiting three poems by Shao Yung (1011-1077).  In his day, he was perhaps best known as a Confucian scholar and philosopher.  Yet he was also a fine poet.

               Arriving in Lo-yang Again

Those years, I was a green-youthed wanderer;
today I come again, a white-haired old man.
From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,
and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 335.

This poem, and the two poems by Shao Yung which appear below, are all in the chüeh-chü quatrain form.  This form requires rhyming of the second and fourth lines, as well as compliance with the complex rules of tonal parallelism that are an essential element of traditional Chinese lyric poetry.  Ibid, pages 8-11, 373.

Richard Wyndham (1896-1948), "Summer Landscape" (c. 1932)

But, putting aside matters of form and prosody, it is the affecting and redolent character of these poetic reflections that is so beguiling. Although classical Chinese poetry is, of course, the product of a unique ancient culture and of three interacting philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), lines such as "Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?" and "From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,/and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!" do not move us because of their cultural origins or because they may arise out of a certain philosophical system.  Rather, they move us because they are True and Beautiful articulations of what it means to be a human being, and to live in, and to be fated to depart from, a wondrous and mysterious World -- at any time and in any place.

                 Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid, page 336.

Richard Wyndham, "Tickerage Mill" (c. 1939)

This past week Spring began to emerge, in a place where I have become accustomed to see it first arrive: in a group of small bushes beside a pathway that passes through a grove of tall pines.  The bushes are sheltered within the dark, quiet, and windless grove, although sunlight and rain do filter through the deep canopy of pine boughs.  One day this week, in the late afternoon yellow light that angled down through the boughs, I noticed bright green leaf buds shining at the tips of the branches of the bushes.

   Song of the Water Willow in Front of Comfortable Den

In front of Comfortable Den, by a little crooked stream,
New rushes, a delicate willow, turn green year by year.
Before my eyes a procession of good sights pass --
Who says that life is so full of wants?

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Kōjirō Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry (translated and edited by Burton Watson) (Harvard University Press 1967), page 83.  Shao Yung, who "lived all his life in semi-seclusion," gave his house the name "An-lo-wo," which may be translated as "Comfortable Den."  Ibid.

Richard Wyndham, "The Medway near Tonbridge" (1936)

Monday, January 16, 2023

How to Live, Part Thirty-Two: River

Human nature being what it is, the world has always been, and will always be, beset with utopian busybodies who have taken leave of their senses.  (As ever, I draw a strict distinction between the lower-case "world" in which we find ourselves by historical circumstance, and the upper-case "World" of Beauty, Truth, and Immanence.  More on this crucial distinction anon.)  I trust, dear readers, that you know of whom I speak: the new Puritans who, imagining themselves to have attained the highest stage of enlightenment, now presume to re-educate the rest of us, whether we like it or not. 

Because I am in the autumn (or is it, perhaps, winter?) of my life, I should be able to view this state of affairs from an Olympian height, having seen it all before -- to wit, yet another case study in human pathology and folly ("extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds").  Still, I confess that there are times when the effrontery, ignorance, bad faith, and mean-spiritedness of it all tries my patience.  When this happens, one can always turn to poetry for perspective.

          Leave Them Alone

There's nothing happening that you hate
That's really worthwhile slamming;
Be patient.  If you only wait
You'll see time gently damning

Newspaper bedlamites who raised
Each day the devil's howl,
Versifiers who had seized 
The poet's begging bowl.

The whole hysterical passing show 
The hour apotheosized
Into a cul-de-sac will go
And be not even despised.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2005), page 158.  The poem was first published in May of 1950.  Ibid, page 277.

But is Kavanagh being too sanguine?  A poem by another Irish poet is worth considering as well.

               The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941), page 10.

Yes, I'm afraid that Humbug will always be with us.  On the other hand, leaving the purveyors of Humbug alone is sound advice.  This is where the "World" versus "world" distinction comes in.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "The Ettrick Shepherd" (1936)

W. H. Auden devoted a great deal of attention to the Humbug that walks the modern world on stilts.  This attention was always present in his poems, but it took a turn in the 1940s, as he moved away from the political preoccupations of his younger years, with religion taking on more importance in both his life and poetry.  I don't intend to undertake an examination of Auden's complex views on the state in which humanity found itself in the 20th century.  However, I do think that many of the poems he wrote in the latter half of his life (particularly in the 1950s) can help us to place into perspective the antics (or is "depredations" the better word?) of our current clan of self-anointed saviors and inquisitors.

               The History of Truth

In that ago when being was believing,
Truth was the most of many credibles,
More first, more always, than a bat-winged lion,
A fish-tailed dog or eagle-headed fish,
The least like mortals, doubted by their deaths.

Truth was their model as they strove to build
A world of lasting objects to believe in,
Without believing earthernware and legend,
Archway and song, were truthful or untruthful:
The Truth was there already to be true.

This while when, practical like paper-dishes,
Truth is convertible to kilowatts,
Our last to do by is an anti-model,
Some untruth anyone can give the lie to,
A nothing no one need believe is there.

W. H. Auden, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973 (edited by Edward Mendelson) (Princeton University Press 2022), pages 485-486.  The poem was likely written in 1958. Ibid, page 987.  Auden preferred "the uncommon alternative form 'earthernware' [line 8] to 'earthenware'."  Ibid.

An earlier poem by Auden complements "The History of Truth" quite well:

                      The Chimeras

Absence of heart -- as in public buildings,
Absence of mind -- as in public speeches,
Absence of worth -- as in goods intended for the public,

Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
Not a scrap is left, not even his name.

Indescribable -- being neither this nor that,
Uncountable -- being any number,
Unreal -- being anything but what they are,

And ugly customers for someone to encounter,
It is our fault entirely if we do;
They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.

Curious from wantonness -- to see what they are like,
Cruel from fear -- to put a stop to them,
Incredulous from conceit -- to prove they cannot be,

We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
It is our strength with which they gobble us up.

If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
Get by them safely, he is still in danger,
With pity remembering what once they were,

Of turning back to help them.  Don't.
What they were once was what they would not be;
Not liking what they are not is what now they are.

No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
And do not let your goodness self-deceive you:
It is good that they are but not that they are thus.

W. H. Auden, Ibid, pages 375-376.  The poem was written in 1950 in Forio, on the island of Ischia.  Ibid, p. 934.  [As I have mentioned in the past, one of my two fundamental poetical principles is: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  But I sometimes violate that principle.  Hence, for anyone who may be interested, I recommend James F. G. Weldon's article "The Infernal Present: Auden's Use of Inferno III in 'The Chimeras,'" which appears in Quaderni d'italianistica, Volume V, No. 1 (1984), pages 97-109.  Weldon persuasively argues that "The Chimeras" echoes Canto III of Dante's Inferno in both text and theme.]

James McIntosh Patrick, "Winter in Angus" (1935)

What, then, is one to do?  As Auden suggests, we should "walk on, keep on walking."  The chimeras -- having nothing to do with Truth (or with Beauty) -- are best left to their fate.  As a baby boomer who grew up with the music of the Sixties and Seventies, these lines come to mind:

It was then that I knew I'd had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel,
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand.
With the one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand,
How I lost my friends I still don't understand.

Neil Young, "Thrasher," from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979).

The hermetic life does have a certain appeal.  In my daydreams I can imagine nothing better than to spend my remaining days in a seacoast town or mountain village in Japan, watching the seasons come and go.  But burning one's credit cards for fuel and leaving the pavement behind is not a practical alternative.  Nor do I have the fortitude to become an eremite.

But, most importantly, isn't what a hermit longingly seeks right in front of us at this moment?

On the day after New Year's Day, I was startled to come upon a woolly bear caterpillar making its way across the pathway down which I walked.  In the grey light of the January afternoon its black and dark burnt-orange colors were striking -- seeming more vivid and more beautiful than usual, given the circumstances.  Because the pathway is frequented by both walkers and bicyclists, I picked the traveller up (it immediately rolled itself into a protective ball) and laid it among some fallen leaves beside the trunk of a nearby tree. (As I have noted here in the past, I am not seeking credit for this: it is something we all do.)  Woolly bears hibernate over the winter, so I wondered why it was out for a stroll at this time of year.  But what do I know?  

          The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001), page 86.

"This calm-flowing river."  A woolly bear caterpillar unexpectedly appears, bright and beautiful, in the midst of winter.  The chimeras are nowhere to be found.  Therein lies the distinction between the World and the world.

                    The River

And the cobbled water
Of the stream with the trout's indelible
Shadows that winter
Has not erased -- I walk it
Again under a clean
Sky with the fish, speckled like thrushes,
Silently singing among the weed's 
                   I bring the heart
Not the mind to the interpretation
Of their music, letting the stream
Comb me, feeling it fresh
In my veins, revisiting the sources
That are as near now
As on the morning I set out from them.

R. S. Thomas,  H'm (Macmillan 1972), page 23.

James Mcintosh Patrick, "An Exmoor Farm" (1938)

One afternoon last week I walked down a different path, through a narrow meadow bordered on both sides by groves of pine trees.  My bird companions in winter are small flocks of chattering robins and sparrows who make their accustomed rounds throughout the day. But the meadow and trees were silent as I walked.  Suddenly, a single dove flew out of a bush to my left, landed on the path in front of me, hopped along the path for a few feet, and then flew off into the meadow.

     In the depths of night --
The sound of the river flowing on,
     And the moonlight
Shining clear above the village
Of Mizuno in Yamashiro.

Tonna (1289-1372) (translated by Robert Brower and Steven Carter), in Robert Brower and Steven Carter, Conversations with Shōtetsu (Shōtetsu Monogatari) (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan 1992), page 120.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Arbirlot Mill, Near Arbroath"

Thursday, December 22, 2022


" . . . like a dove/That slants unswerving to its home and love."

Earlier this week, about an hour before sunset, I was out for a walk, my attention drawn to the sky in the west.  The waters of Puget Sound were a dark slate-grey, with a slight undertone of purple. Beyond the Sound, on the horizon, the Olympic Mountains stood in a row.  The sky to the east was mostly clear.  But directly overhead was the leading edge of a layer of cloud which extended across the water, ending in a long straight line above the mountains.  

The descending sun was hidden.  Yet a glowing path of yellow sky ran from north to south between the silhouette of the mountain range and the far dark edge of the cloud layer.  That band of changing golden light -- soon to vanish -- demanded one's attention: what would come of it between now and sunset?

I kept walking, looking to the west.  The twilit road passed through a meadow, a scattering of trees on either side.  Suddenly, just ahead of me, an owl glided quickly and silently downward from left to right above the road, landing in a nearly leafless tree out in the meadow, beside a grove of pines.

Last week, I read this:


What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008), page 58. Thomas wrote the poem on January 21, 1915.  Ibid, page 186.

Ethelbert White (1891-1972), "Edge of the Village" (1924)

Edward Thomas' life story tends to draw attention away from his poetry.  This is not surprising.  Born to be a poet, he married at a young age, left Oxford without taking a degree, and became a prolific writer of prose in order to support his family.  He was beset with melancholy, misery, and dejection.  Then, in the autumn of 1913, came the fated and wondrous meeting with Robert Frost.  This friendship, coupled with the beginning of war in 1914 and his subsequent enlistment, led to a poetic flowering which lasted just over two years (the first of his poems was written on December 3, 1914; the final poem was written on January 13, 1917).  The tragic end -- which cannot help but be in the back of our minds as we read his poems -- came at Arras in France on April 9, 1917.

Yes, the short arc of his life is compelling and moving.  But it is the 140 or so poems he wrote during those two charmed years that deserve our attention.  "I may as well write poetry.  Did anyone ever begin at 36 in the shade?"  So he wrote in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon on August 2, 1914.  (Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford University Press 1958), page 81.)  We are fortunate that he began "at 36 in the shade."  For he is in his poetry, and we are the better for it.  "Beauty" is a perfect instance.  The first ten lines are a harrowing and accurate account of who he was.  And yet the final eight lines (which begin with the wonderful turn at "This heart . . .") are an affecting, lovely, and equally accurate account of who he was.  He never dissembles or postures in his poetry.

Kingsley Amis (who was not easy to please) recognized this quality: "How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."  (Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology (Hutchinson 1988), page 339.)  Amis' comment is reminiscent of something which Thom Gunn wrote of Thomas Hardy: "And we never for a moment doubt that Hardy means what he says. . . . [Y]ou never feel, even in Hardy's most boring and ridiculous poetry, that he is pretending -- he is never rhetorical. And there are not many poets of whom this can be said. . . . Much of what sustains me through the flatter parts of the Collected Poems is this feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me." (Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," in Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1985), pages 104-105.)  I believe that Gunn's comments apply equally well to Edward Thomas.  (It is not surprising to discover that Hardy admired Thomas' poetry, which he became aware of only after Thomas' death.)

As it happens, Amis' comment is in fact an echo of Thomas' own words about what it means to be a poet:

"Here, I think, in [John Clare's] 'Love lives beyond the tomb,' in this unprejudiced singing voice that knows not what it sings, is some reason for us to believe that poets are not merely writing figuratively when they say, 'My love is like a red, red rose,' that they are to be taken more literally than they commonly are, that they do not invent or 'make things up' as grown people do when they condescend to a child's game.  What they say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty.  But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

Ethelbert White, "The Farm by the Brook" (1929)

"What are days for?/Days are where we live. . . . Where can we live but days?"  (Philip Larkin, "Days.")  "For the days are long --/From the first milk van/To the last shout in the night,/An eternity."  (Derek Mahon, "Dream Days.")  Here is a further thought for consideration: days are where beauty dwells.  "Beauty is there."

Eleanor Farjeon writes that Thomas' "secret self pined for beauty." (Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, page 41.) Yet, as Larkin perceptively observes: "What a strange talent his was: the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  (Philip Larkin, letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), in Anthony Thwaite (editor), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (Faber and Faber 1992), page 599.)  These two characteristics often appear together in Thomas' poems.  

But perhaps this gets to the heart of the matter for Thomas (and indeed for us as well):

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.  

As one might expect, Thomas was aware of the passage from Keats' letter.  He wrote a literary biography of Keats.  In a chapter titled "Keats and His Friends," Thomas mentions Benjamin Bailey, and then notes: "It was in a letter to Bailey that Keats said he was certain of nothing but 'the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of imagination'."  (Edward Thomas, Keats (T. C. & E. C. Jack 1916), page 30.)

                               The Ash Grove

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval --
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles -- but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, page 108.  The poem was written on February 4 through February 9, 1916.  Ibid, page 272.

Ethelbert White, "Landscape with Cows and a Punt"

We all pine for beauty, don't we?  But, as Thomas reminds us in so many of his poems, beauty is not beauty without qualifications, without the contingency of evanescence.  Perhaps evanescence is at the heart of beauty -- is its essence.  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)

                    Over the Hills

Often and often it came back again
To mind, the day I passed the horizon ridge
To a new country, the path I had to find
By half-gaps that were stiles once in the hedge,
The pack of scarlet clouds running across
The harvest evening that seemed endless then
And after, and the inn where all were kind,
All were strangers.  I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line.  It became
Almost a habit through the year for me
To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night.  Recall
Was vain: no more could the restless brook
Ever turn back and climb the waterfall
To the lake that rests and stirs not in its nook,
As in the hollow of the collar-bone
Under the mountain's head of rush and stone.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, page 52.  Thomas wrote the poem on January 9, 1915, the day after he wrote "Adelstrop," and twelve days before he wrote "Beauty."  Ibid, pages 176, 179, and 186.

Would that Edward Thomas had begun writing poetry earlier in his life.  Would that he had not died at so young an age.  How many more days in which he came upon beauty might he have given us in his poetry?  But we should be grateful for what he was able to give us from the days he spent in the countryside of England and Wales.   

Ethelbert White, "Landscape"  

Friday, November 25, 2022


Reading Chinese poetry of past centuries, one often encounters poems of parting, as well as poems of longing for a family member or friend who is far away in a distant corner of the kingdom, perhaps never to be seen again.  This is attributable to the fact that nearly all of the Chinese poets whose poems have survived were governmental bureaucrats -- but bureaucrats of a sort unknown to us.  They attained their positions only after years of rigorous study of literature and philosophy, culminating in a difficult series of civil service examinations, which many aspirants failed.  One of the chief subjects of examination was poetry: this required knowledge of past poetry, and, importantly, the ability to write poems in accordance with the strict and complex rules of Chinese prosody.  Imagine that.

Over the course of their careers, it was the lot of most poet-civil servants to be suddenly and unexpectedly relocated by the government to obscure cities and provinces in the hinterlands. This was generally due to standard bureaucratic practice: periodic relocations prevented the accumulation of influence and power. Alternatively (and not uncommonly), the relocation was due to the imposition of exile as a punishment for running afoul of the ruling clique -- perhaps by writing a poem containing a too thinly veiled criticism of the clique.  Either way, the life of a poet in governmental service was one of departures and separations.

As but one example, here is one of the best-known, and most admired, poems of farewell:

                Seeing a Friend Off

Green hills sloping from the northern wall,
white water rounding the eastern city:
once parted from this place
the lone weed tumbles ten thousand miles.
Drifting clouds -- a traveler's thoughts;
setting sun -- an old friend's heart.
Wave hands and let us take leave now,
hsiao-hsiao our hesitant horses neighing.

Li Po (701-762) (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 212.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Autumn Morning" (1891)

As is the case with "Seeing a Friend Off," the poems of parting and separation are often affecting and lovely: the sense of loss and sorrow is genuine, and is much more than a matter of poetic convention. Moreover, there is a wider context for the parting and separation, for the loss and sorrow.

     Dreaming that I Went with Li and Yü to Visit Yüan Chen

At night I dreamt I was back in Ch'ang-an;
I saw again the faces of old friends.
And in my dreams, under an April sky,
They led me by the hand to wander in the spring winds.
Together we came to the ward of Peace and Quiet;
We stopped our horses at the gate of Yüan Chen.
Yüan Chen was sitting all alone;
When he saw me coming, a smile came to his face.
He pointed back at the flowers in the western court;
Then opened wine in the northern summer-house.
He seemed to be saying that neither of us had changed;
He seemed to be regretting that joy will not stay;
That our souls had met only for a little while,
To part again with hardly time for greeting.
I woke up and thought him still at my side;
I put out my hand; there was nothing there at all.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 46.  According to a note by Waley, the poem was "written in exile."  Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen & Unwin 1946), page 159.

The phrase "a continual farewell" returned to me when I read Po Chü-i's poem a few days ago.  It appears in the closing lines of W. B. Yeats' poem "Ephemera": "Before us lies eternity; our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell."  "Ephemera" is an autumnal poem ("the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom") about the pain of the loss of youthful love, written during Yeats' fin de siècle Celtic Twilight period.  It has nothing to do with Chinese poetry.  Yet I think the two lines -- and particularly the beautiful "a continual farewell" -- tell us something about why poems written centuries ago by poet-civil servants in another land continue to speak to us so movingly about our life and fate.

John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"

Yüan Chen (779-831) was Po Chü-i's dearest friend.  After passing their civil service examinations, they spent their younger years together while serving in governmental positions in Ch'ang-an, which was the capital of China at that time.  Over the course of more than three decades, Po Chü-i wrote a number of poems about their separations, which were occasioned by their periodic reassignments and banishments.  This, for instance, is one of the most beloved poems in Chinese literature:

             On Board Ship: Reading Yüan Chen's Poems

I take your poems in my hand and read them beside the candle;
The poems are finished, the candle is low, dawn not yet come.
My eyes smart; I put out the lamp and go on sitting in the dark,
Listening to waves that, driven by the wind, strike the prow of the ship.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 142.

Yüan Chen died at the young age (even for those times) of 52.  Nine years after Yüan Chen's death, Po Chü-i, at the age of 68, wrote this:

   On Hearing Someone Sing a Poem by Yüan Chen

No new poems his brush will trace;
   Even his fame is dead.
His old poems are deep in dust
   At the bottom of boxes and cupboards.
Once lately, when someone was singing,
   Suddenly I heard a verse --
Before I had time to catch the words
   A pain had stabbed my heart.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Ibid, page 165.

Po Chü-i does not identify which poem of Yüan Chen's he heard being sung.  But, who knows, perhaps it was this, written by Yüan Chen after the death of his wife:

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 191.

Henry Morley (1869-1937), "Lifting Potatoes near Stirling"

Among poetry's many wonders, perhaps the most wondrous is the echoing and reaffirmation of Beauty and Truth throughout the ages and in all corners of the World.  Every poet writes his or her poems in times which are parlous, full of clamorous madness, and beset with evil, ill-will, duplicity, and bad faith.  Yet through it all runs the serene thread of Beauty and Truth.  "Together we came to the ward of Peace and Quiet."  (Thank you, Po Chü-i and Arthur Waley.)

In the Ninth Century, during the T'ang Dynasty (the greatest period of Chinese poetry), Po Chü-i wrote this about his dream of Yüan Chen:

He seemed to be saying that neither of us had changed;
He seemed to be regretting that joy will not stay;
That our souls had met only for a little while,
To part again with hardly time for greeting.

In Japan, approximately ten centuries later, Ryōkan wrote this:

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Ryōkan was a Zen Buddhist monk who elected to live a life of penury in a mountain hut.  He was well-educated, and had studied Chinese philosophy and literature.  Chinese poetry had long been admired by Japanese waka and haiku poets, and Po Chü-i was a particular favorite of many of those poets.  It is not unlikely that Ryōkan was familiar with Po Chü-i's poetry.  Had he read "Dreaming that I Went with Li and Yü to Visit Yüan Chen"?  We have no way of knowing.  It would be lovely to discover that Ryōkan did indeed have Po Chü-i's four lines in mind when he wrote his own poem.  But it is also wonderful to think that two human beings -- in different lands and at different times -- recognized, and articulated in a beautiful fashion, a fundamental truth about what it means to live in the World.

And, nearly a century later in Ireland, W. B. Yeats wrote this:

Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.

W. B. Yeats, "Ephemera," Poems (T. Fisher Unwin 1895).

The thread is continuous and consistent, and remains unbroken: souls; partings; a continual farewell.

For me, who go,
for you who stay behind --
two autumns.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems (edited by Burton Watson) (Columbia University Press 1997), page 44.

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Meadows by the Avon"