Sunday, May 30, 2010

Louis MacNeice and "Progress"

I acknowledge that I am a hypocrite:  how can someone who maintains a blog on the Internet presume to raise doubts about "progress"?  "In for a penny, in for a pound."  Or something like that.  And yet, and yet . .

                    To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (1957).

Friday, May 28, 2010

Samuel Johnson: "But All These Things, David, Make Death Very Terrible"

As the world lurches from one "financial crisis" to the next, who better to turn to than Samuel Johnson in order to put money and wealth into perspective?  Although it is a fool's errand to try to identify one's "favorite" Johnsonian anecdotes, I have long been fond of the one that follows.  (Or, perhaps, it is simply one that remains in my rapidly failing memory.)

The anecdote arises out of a visit made by Johnson to the new villa of David Garrick (1717-1779) at Hampton Court.  Garrick started out as a student of Johnson's in Lichfield.  The two then became friends, and they left Lichfield together for London in 1737.  Garrick eventually became the most celebrated actor in England, and made a fortune. 

"Soon after Garrick's purchase at Hampton Court he was showing Dr. Johnson the grounds, the house, Shakespeare's temple, etc.; and concluded by asking him, 'Well, Doctor, how do you like all this?'  'Why, it is pleasant enough,' growled the Doctor, 'for the present; but all these things, David, make death very terrible.'"

William Cooke, Life of Samuel Foote, quoted in George Birkbeck Hill (editor), Johnsonian Miscellanies, Volume II (1897), page 394. 

                                            Garrick's Villa  

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Dear Clifford's Seat": A Lost World

From the January 14, 1922, issue of Notes and Queries (Twelfth Series, Volume X, No. 196, contributed by F. C. Morgan):

"Dear Clifford's Seat.  At a village near Stratford-upon-Avon, called in [Michael Drayton's] Polyalbion
     dear Clifford's seat (the place of health and sport)
     Which many a time hath been the Muse's quiet port,
I believe that a record has recently been established, proving that Drayton was correct in calling this picturesque spot 'the place of health.'  In 1887 the church was restored, and when the work was completed a new team of ringers was appointed.  These same men rang many changes on the bells without a change among themselves until 1919, 32 years, when the conductor died, and his brother, not wishing to continue after this loss, resigned.  Their names were George Lynes (conductor), James Lynes, William Lively, John Lively, Enoch Lively, John Bettridge and John Salmon.  John Lively has been clerk since 1887, having then succeeded his father, who had held the office for 27 years.

In the same village the staff of eight men working at the mill in 1919 had lengths of service ranging from 30 years to upwards of 50.

These facts were communicated to me by Mr. John James, churchwarden, who annually at Christmas invites the ringers to a feast, where good fare, song and story fill up a pleasant evening."

A lost world: bell-ringers; their annual Christmas dinner, with "good fare, song and story"; a mill at the end of a green lane -- "dear Clifford's seat."  But I am half a world and a hundred years away.  Did the bell-ringers and the men in the mill indeed feel that Clifford's seat was dear?  Or did they long for somewhere else?  It would depend, of course, upon who you talked to.  Yet still I daydream of "dear Clifford's seat."

                      Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "Christmas" (1929)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Schopenhauer: Dogs Are Preferable To Humans

Arthur Schopenhauer is my favorite pessimist.  (Although Giacomo Leopardi and Philip Larkin are definitely in the running.)  I say this subject to the proviso (as I have noted before) that one person's "pessimism" is another person's "realism."  However, I do not intend to urge Schopenhauer's view of the world upon the rest of you.

But, for those of you who may shy away from pessimism, please bear in mind that Schopenhauer's pessimism (and his accompanying misanthropy) sometimes reach such heights (or is it depths?) that you can only break out in laughter at his antics.  Thus, I give you Arthur's following piece of wisdom about dogs.

First comes the not uncommon apostrophe upon the deficiencies of the average human being:  "There are few who have even a small surplus of intellectual powers. . . .with the others, it is better not to enter into any relations . . . what they have to say will not be worth listening to.  What we say to them will seldom be properly grasped and understood."  Arthur then comes to this conclusion (in the form of a bit of advice):

"To anyone who needs lively entertainment for the purpose of banishing the dreariness of solitude, I recommend a dog, in whose moral and intellectual qualities he will almost always experience delight and satisfaction."

"Ideas Concerning the Intellect Generally and In All Respects," in Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II (translated by E. F. J. Payne), page 82.

Appallingly misanthropic?  Yes.  Arrogant and supercilious?  Yes, of course.  Entertaining?  Yes.  (At least for some of us.)  But don't you get the feeling that Arthur is perhaps pulling our leg -- having a bit of fun with us?  (I have always suspected that Philip Larkin was wont to do the same thing, particularly when he sat down for interviews.)

A final note:  in connection with Arthur's advice, one should be aware that he was devoted to his beloved poodles, who lived with him in his rooms, and accompanied him on his daily walks among the burghers of Frankfurt-am-Main.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

William Cowper: "The Rapidity With Which Life Flies"

William Cowper -- that troubled man -- was a delightful correspondent.  Despite the mental distress that afflicted him most of his life, his letters are wise, observant, witty, and affectionate -- although the distress, and its attendant sadness, always hover nearby.  This passage is from a letter of October 26, 1790, to John Newton:

A yellow shower of leaves is falling continually from all the trees in the country.  A few moments only seem to have passed since they were buds; and in few moments more, they will have disappeared.  It is one advantage of a rural situation, that it affords many hints of the rapidity with which life flies, that do not occur in towns and cities.  It is impossible for a man, conversant with such scenes as surround me, not to advert daily to the shortness of his existence here, admonished of it, as he must be, by ten thousand objects.

There was a time when I could contemplate my present state, and consider myself as a thing of a day with pleasure; when I numbered the seasons as they passed in swift rotation, as a schoolboy numbers the days that interpose between the next vacation, when he shall see his parents and enjoy his home again.  But to make so just an estimate of life like this, is no longer in my power.  The consideration of my short continuance here, which was once grateful to me, now fills me with regret. I would live and live always, and am become such another wretch as Maecenas was, who wished for long life, he cared not at what expense of sufferings.
. . .
Adieu, my dear friend.  We are well; and, notwithstanding all that I have said, I am myself as cheerful as usual.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Neglected Poets: Bernard Spencer

The poetry of Bernard Spencer (1909-1963) reflects the fact that he spent most of his life as an expatriate, working much of the time for the British Council as a teacher, lecturer, and administrator.  His poems -- few and far between -- have as their locales Greece, Egypt, Italy, Spain, and Austria.  During the Second World War, he was stranded in Cairo, where he was one of the poets (including Lawrence Durrell, Keith Douglas, and Terence Tiller) associated with the journal Personal Landscape.  He died in Vienna at the age of 53.

His verse is conversational in tone, but at the same time it is elegant and exact.  It reminds me at times of the later poetry of Louis MacNeice (with whom Spencer was acquainted).  I am not suggesting that Spencer's poetry was directly influenced by that of MacNeice, only that the two of them independently shared a similar style.  (Coincidentally, they both died in September of 1963.)  The following two poems provide only a brief introduction to Spencer's poetry.         

             At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one 'among the pines'?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

With Luck Lasting (1963) in Collected Poems, edited by Roger Bowen (Oxford University Press 1981).  Although I am, in general, not a proponent of attempting to link a poet's poems to specific events in the poet's life, I think that one should know that "At Courmayeur" was written after Spencer's first wife died at a young age of tuberculosis. 

               On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin'.

                  Turner, Mont Blanc from above Courmayeur (1810)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Walter de la Mare: "Lovely"

The poetry of Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) always retained a Romantic and Victorian air.  Its diction, vocabulary, and subject matter may seem old-fashioned or archaic to some.  De la Mare certainly was not part of the "modernist" project.  All of this troubles me not.  The poetry is still there.

However, if -- for example -- you balk at the irony-free use of the word "lovely" in a poem, you had best steer clear of de la Mare's poetry.  For "lovely" is a word of which he was fond. 


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.

Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1979), page 266.

This is the final stanza of "Fare Well":

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour.  Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
     Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
     In other days.

Collected Poems, page 124.


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.

Collected Poems, page 437.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

C. H. Sisson: Final Poems

C. H. Sisson's final poems make for harrowing reading.  Not that this is surprising:  Sisson was never one to mince words, and one would expect him to report things exactly as he saw -- and felt -- them.  The following poems (save for "It is") appear in the last section ("Poems since What and Who") of his Collected Poems.  (What and Who was published in 1994, when Sisson turned 80.) 

   The Best Thing to Say

The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.

Collected Poems (Carcanet Press 1998), page 492.  "The Best Thing to Say" is anticipated by this earlier poem:

              It is

It is extraordinary how old age
Creeps on one
First it is not believed, even noticed
Then one notices symptoms but says nothing:
At the last nothing is what one says.

Anchises (1976), in Collected Poems, page 200.

        Five Lines

The splashed light on the rain-wet stones
Is in the eye, not in the sun:
Eyes dimmed, the light is gone,
And all the wonder of the world
Cannot withstand the touch of age.

Collected Poems, page 485.


It is no longer I who speak:
There was a man who spoke, but he is dead.

Collected Poems, page 488.


Nothing means anything now:
I am alone
-- My mind a vacant space,
My heart of stone.

A tuneless thing I am,
A broken lyre.
I cannot even boast
A flameless fire.

There is the work I did
-- Paper and ink --
I have no part in it:
There is no link

Between the man who wrote
-- And more, was once alive,
And this relic for whom
The end does not arrive.

Although the life has gone
There is no corpse to show:
When others find it, I
Alone shall never know.

Collected Poems, page 496.

                            C. H. Sisson (by Patrick Swift, c. 1960)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Charles Tomlinson On Cellphones: "The Self-sufficiency Of Trees"

Imagine: there once was a time when people walked abroad in the world without telephones.  How did we fill our days?  In that dark and benighted past, one could stroll beneath the sky unaccompanied by the sound of the one-sided cellphone conversations of strangers.  Ah, welladay!

The following poem is by Charles Tomlinson. 

                   All Aboard

All aboard and then
the entire train
breaks into phone fever and
intimacies of every kind
blossom into relations, revelations
as bosoms unburden themselves and stand
stark in that no-man's-land of tattle
confronting the traveller:
I must exchange my seat and get
into the phone-free hermitage where I
can contemplate the self-sufficiency of trees,
the passing landscape and the sky,
but someone has anticipated me
and is talking into the mouthpiece of his machine
-- the others are too well-mannered to intervene but I
tap his shoulder, tap again to snip
the unbreakable ticker-tape of his privacies
which have not ceased and do not until I lean
closer to indicate the to him invisible sign:
he lurches up and awake and gripping
his still unsheathed weapon makes
for the pollutable corridor.  The others are silent --
disappointed: clearly they had been trying to filter out
the inessentials and impose their own storyline.
I had frustrated them with that fastidiousness of mine.
Too late for landscape now.  I take out
a book too ruffled to read it --
close your eyes, there are no exceptional things
to surprise them in the dark out there.
I even fall asleep, then wake to the hiss of the brakes,
the shudder of resistance -- we have arrived and so
I stand and step down into Gloucestershire in a Scotch mist.

Published in The Times Literary Supplement on February 11, 2005.

               C. W. Eckersberg, "The Cloisters, San Lorenzo" (1824)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

No Escape, Part Five: "Some Unhaunted Desert"

For this visit to the realm of the ideal place, a place that always comes up against the "wherever you go, there you are" problem, I wish to consider a poem written by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1565-1601).  Caught up in the wars and court intrigues of Elizabethan times, Devereux had ample reason to long for a simpler, less dangerous life and land.

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.

"Some unhaunted desert":  that phrase alone is worth a lifetime of writing, as far as I am concerned.  (But perhaps I am easily pleased -- "or else I'm getting soft," to quote Bob Dylan.)

Alas, Devereux's wish was not to be fulfilled:  he was beheaded on February 25, 1601, for his alleged involvement in a plot against Elizabeth.  His fate certainly adds poignancy to the poem, especially to: "then might he sleep secure."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Neglected Poets: Patrick MacDonogh

Given the fact that The Gallery Press published a selection of his poems in 2001 (with a fine introduction by Derek Mahon), it may be inaccurate to describe Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961) as a "neglected poet."  If you have not yet encountered his verse, it is well worth searching out.  The following poems may be found in the The Gallery Press edition.


This wind that howls about our roof tonight
And tears live branches screaming from great trees
Tomorrow may have scarcely strength to ruffle
The rabbit's back to silver in the sun.

Dodona, in northern Greece, was reputed to be the site of a grove of oak trees in which an oracle spoke through the rustling of the leaves.  In "Dodona's Oaks Were Still," a man heads to the hills to find solitude and truth.  These are the closing lines:

He hoped to see the whole
Diverse and complicated world
Fold up and pack itself into his soul
The way a walnut's packed.
The lonely fool,
Squatting among the heavy mountain shapes,
Looked on the wet black branches and the red,
Followed the urgent branches to their tips
And back again through twig and stem to root,
Always alone and busy with himself,
Enquiring if this world of decent men
Must be hell's kitchen to the end of time,
Because of that old crime, incorrigible pride,
Strong powers of angels soured by impotence,
Rebellious godhead working its hot way
Through tangled veins.
He cried in pain towards the writhing trees,
But heard no voice.
Dodona's oaks were still.

And I will close with this:


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein Pretends To Be The Moon. Samuel Johnson Rolls Down A Hill.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Ludwig Wittgenstein admired Samuel Johnson.  Perhaps I should not have been surprised:  both of them sought -- to use one of Wittgenstein's characteristic words -- "clarity," and both of them abhorred -- to use one of Johnson's characteristic words -- "cant."

But I digress.  The purpose of this post is simply to share two wonderful anecdotes that I came across.  They have nothing to do -- on the face of it -- with clarity or cant.  No interpretations or elucidations or theories are necessary.

"Sometimes he came to my house in Searle Street for supper.  Once, after supper, Wittgenstein, my wife, and I went for a walk on Midsummer Common.  We talked about the movements of the bodies of the solar system.  It occurred to Wittgenstein that the three of us should represent the movements of the sun, earth, and moon, relative to one another.  My wife was the sun and maintained a steady pace across the meadow; I was the earth and circled her at a trot.  Wittgenstein took the most strenuous part of all, the moon, and ran around me while I circled my wife.  Wittgenstein entered into this game with great enthusiasm and seriousness, shouting instructions at us as he ran.  He became quite breathless and dizzy with exhaustion."

Norman Malcolm, "A Memoir," in Portraits of Wittgenstein (edited by F. A. Flowers), Volume 3 (1999), page 78.

H. D. Best's account of his visit to the country house of Bennet Langton contains this anecdote relating to a visit that Johnson made to the house in 1764 (when Johnson was 55):

"After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house.  When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, 'Poor, dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned to look down the hill, and said he was determined "to take a roll down."  When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, he had not had a roll for a long time; and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them -- keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife, and laying himself parallel with the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom.'"

Johnsonian Miscellanies (edited by George Birkbeck Hill), Volume II (1897), page 391.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Meeting Thomas Hardy

Siegfried Sassoon's impressions upon meeting the elderly Thomas Hardy (please see my post of April 16) were not, it seems, uncommon.  The following accounts (which may be found in Edmund Blunden's Thomas Hardy) suggest that encountering Mr. Hardy was indeed a marvelous event. 

"The picture drawn by Mr. Powys is memorable.  'Presently I found myself seated near a good log fire.  A little white dog lay stretched on the hearthrug.  Near the chimney-piece I noticed the portrait of Shelley, and on the top of the bookshelf a small bust of Sir Walter Scott.  He came in at last, a little old man (dressed in tweeds after the manner of a country squire) with the same round skull and the same goblin eyebrows and the same eyes keen and alert.  What was it that he reminded me of?  A night hawk? a falcon owl? for I tell you the eyes that looked out of that century-old skull were of the kind that see in the dark.'  And when Mr. Powys went his way, he left Hardy gazing into the October night."

Edmund Blunden, Thomas Hardy (1941), page 159.  The parallels with Sassoon's fireside visit with Hardy ("the wizard of Wessex") are remarkable.  Here is another account:

"To the end of his life Hardy kept some quality of childhood, which caused Mr. H. M. Tomlinson to write, 'Sometimes when talking to him you felt this child was as old as humanity and knew all about us, but that he did not attach importance to his knowledge because he did not know that he had it.  Just by chance, in the drift of the talk, there would be a word by Hardy, not only wide of the mark, but apparently not directed to it.  Why did he say it?  On the way home, or some weeks later, his comment would be recalled, and with the revealing light on it.'"

Ibid, page 273.  In closing, this is from Blunden himself:

"[This] book represents the warm affection which I feel to this day for one of the kindest and brightest of men, one who received the youngest of us without the faintest shade of distance or inequality, and whose memory, even from days all too few of walks and talks, shines steadily through all decline and change."

                                   Thomas Hardy in his garden

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

R. S. Thomas and "Progress": "Deciduous Language"

I had intended to leave the topic of "progress" after hearing from Ludwig Wittgenstein and Edmund Blunden in the previous two posts.  However, I then recalled a poem by R. S. Thomas that bears on the subject.  (R. S. Thomas being who he was, his thoughts -- as one might expect -- are not exactly cheery.)  With his words, we shall say farewell to "progress" for now.


As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.  Was there oil
For the machine?  It was
The vinegar in the poets' cup.

The tins marched to the music
Of the conveyor belt.  A billion
Mouths opened.  Production,
Production, the wheels

Whistled.  Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.

                           The "Beacon of Progress": A Closer View

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Edmund Blunden and "Progress": "Mere moonlight in the last green loneliness"

In the previous post, we heard Ludwig Wittgenstein express skepticism about the nature of "progress" in our time.  In the following poem, Edmund Blunden sounds a similar note:

                    Minority Report

That you have given us others endless means
To modify the dreariness of living,
Machines which even change men to machines;
That you have been most honourable in giving;
That thanks to you we roar through space at speed
Past dreams of wisest science not long since,
And listen in to news we hardly need,
And rumours which might make Horatius wince,
Of modes of sudden death devised by you,
And promising protection against those --
All this and more I know, and what is due
Of praise would offer, couched more fitly in prose.
But such incompetence and such caprice
Clog human nature that, for all your kindness,
Some shun loud-speakers as uncertain peace,
And fear flood-lighting is a form of blindness;
The televisionary world to come,
The petrol-driven world already made,
Appear not to afford these types a crumb
Of comfort.  You will win; be not dismayed.
Let those pursue their fantasy, and press
For obsolete illusion, let them seek
Mere moonlight in the last green loneliness;
Your van will be arriving there next week.

Edmund Blunden, An Elegy and Other Poems (1937).

                                         The "Beacon of Progress"
A proposed 1,500-foot-tall structure designed by a professor of architecture from MIT, circa 1900.  It was never built.