Monday, November 29, 2010

On Happiness: Saul Bellow, Samuel Johnson, And Ludwig Wittgenstein

As I recently mentioned, Saul Bellow's Letters (Viking 2010) have just been published.  While browsing through them, I came across this in a brief letter written by Bellow on April 11, 1970:  "As for Life -- even at best one feels deprived of something."

A day or so later, I was idly thumbing through Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and happened upon this:  "Mr. Johnson observed that it seemed certain that happiness could not be found in this life, because so many had tried to find it in such a variety of ways, and had not found it."

                                                Vilhelm Hammershoi
                                        "Sunbeams or Sunshine" (1900)

On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein -- who one might expect to have a sceptical view of the prospect of happiness in life -- offers us hope (albeit in his usual enigmatic fashion):

"The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.

The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life's mould.  So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit the mould, what is problematic will disappear."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (1984). 

Wittgenstein said something similar (and equally enigmatic) in Proposition 6.521 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

"The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. 

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)"

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness) (1922). 

(I have long felt -- and I am certainly not the first to make this observation -- that Wittgenstein was a Buddhist or a Taoist without knowing it.  It is remarkable how many of his gnomic, aphoristic statements echo Chinese and Japanese Buddhist and Taoist writings, both philosophical and poetic.  When I read him I often feel that I have stumbled into something written by, for instance, Lao-Tzu, Han Shan, Wang Wei, Saigyo, or Ryokan.)

                           Vilhelm Hammershoi, "White Doors" (1905)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Neglected Poets: Charlotte Mew

The poetry of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was admired by some of the best poets of her day:  Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and Siegfried Sassoon (among others) all praised her.  Because of her difficult financial  circumstances, in 1923 Hardy, de la Mare, and John Masefield successfully petitioned for her to receive a Civil List Pension.  Their petition to the Prime Minister read, in part:  "As she is a poet, writing poetry of a rare kind, she may not be widely known for many years.  We feel that it would be a wise and gracious act, worthy of a great people, to give to this rare spirit the means of doing her work until the work can appraise and reward it." 


I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart;
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide --
   Rooms where for good or for ill, things died:
But there is the room where we two lie dead
Though every morning we seem to wake, and might just as well seem
                to sleep again
   As we shall some day in the other dustier quieter bed
   Out there -- in the sun -- in the rain.

                                                           Paul Nash
                               "Riviera Window, Cros de Cagnes" (1926)

                              Afternoon Tea

Please you, excuse me, good five-o'clock people,
   I've lost my last hatful of words,
And my heart's in the wood up above the church steeple,
   I'd rather have tea with -- the birds.

Gay Kate's stolen kisses, poor Barnaby's scars,
   John's losses and Mary's gains,
Oh! what do they matter, my dears, to the stars
   Or the glow-worms in the lanes!

I'd rather lie under the tall elm-trees,
   With old rooks talking loud overhead,
To watch a red squirrel run over my knees,
   Very still on my brackeny bed.

And wonder what feathers the wrens will be taking
   For lining their nests next Spring;
Or why the tossed shadow of boughs in a great wind shaking
   Is such a lovely thing.

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

                                   Paul Nash, "Mimosa Wood" (1926)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Snow Falling And Night Falling Fast, Oh, Fast"

We have had our first snowfall, a snowfall accompanied by icy winds out of Canada and Alaska.  As always, it was lovely to watch the snow swirl down beneath the streetlights as night came on.  Being in a Robert Frost mood of late, one of his bleaker poems came to mind.  (As has often been noted  -- beginning, perhaps, with Randall Jarrell's fine essay "To the Laodiceans" in 1952 -- the notion of Frost as a grandfatherly, comforting, proverbial poet misses a great deal.)

                         Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

                       Akseli Gallen-Kallela, "Imatra in Winter" (1893)   

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Moose Swims Across A Lake

Thirty or so years ago, I spent a summer living in a cabin on the south shore of an otherwise uninhabited mountain lake in northern Idaho.  The lake was about three-quarters of a mile wide from north to south.  Every so often, a moose would swim across the lake from the north shore, stepping out of the water into the cattails just a few yards away from the cabin.  Then it would slowly walk off into the thick, moss-hung woods.

We never know when an unforgettable memory is about to arrive, do we?

Years later -- to my surprise and delight -- I discovered the following poem by Robert Frost.

                         The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush -- and that was all.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

                             Akseli Gallen Kallela, "Lake Keitele" (1905)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Thrush Sings Within A Dark Forest

A thrush sings within a dark forest.  What does it mean?  Is it an allegory?  The beginning of a fairy tale?  Or is it simply a thrush singing within a dark forest?

                Come In

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn't been.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

                    William Fraser Garden, "A Wood in Winter" (1885)

                    The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Like marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track.  But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead:  all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

Edward Thomas wrote "The Green Roads" in June of 1916.

            William Fraser Garden, "Rabbits on a Country Path" (1883)

Friday, November 19, 2010

"My November Guest"

I am of two minds about Robert Frost.  On the one hand, he drives me nuts when he dons his too-clever-by-half New England sage hat.  (Randall Jarrell -- who greatly admired Frost's poetry -- called this side of Frost the "Yankee Editorialist.")  On the other hand, there are the indispensable poems.  The classics, of course:  "The Road Not Taken," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Birches," "After Apple-Picking."  But there are many others.  For instance:  "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," "Desert Places," "Into My Own," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "Come In."

And, beyond the poetry and the personality, we should be grateful for Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas, and for his pushing of Thomas to begin writing poetry.  I continue to find the meeting of those two remarkable characters at that time and in that place to be something of a miracle.  I am aware that there is a danger of over-romanticizing their friendship, but I still shake my head in wonder that those two found each other.

Thus, for November, and in honor of Robert Frost:

            My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
   Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
   She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
   She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
   Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
   The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
   And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
   The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
   And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

                       Eero Jarnefelt, "Lake Shore with Reeds" (1905)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Distracted From Distraction By Distraction"

In "Burnt Norton" (which later became part of Four Quartets), T. S. Eliot wrote that we moderns are "distracted from distraction by distraction."  "Burnt Norton" was published in 1936.  Imagine what Eliot would think of "distraction" today.

In an "Afterword" to his Collected Stories, Saul Bellow has this to say about "distraction":

Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it.  True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by "idea men," advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchormen, et cetera.  Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion.  But no one can have an easy time of it. . . . Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

By some this is seen as a challenge to their ability to maintain internal order.  Others have acquired a taste for distraction, and they freely consent to be addled.  It may even seem to many that by being agitated they are satisfying the claims of society.  The scope of the disorder can even be oddly flattering:  "Just look -- this tremendous noisy frantic monstrous agglomeration.  There's never been anything like it.  And we are it!  This is us!"

Saul Bellow, Collected Stories (2001), pages 441-442.

Years earlier, Bellow said something similar in Humboldt's Gift (1975):  "society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances."

                 Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Monday, November 15, 2010

"The Course Of A Particular"

The sound of boughs threshing in the wind is gone.  Now, a few dry leaves rattle overhead.  Which leads to the following poem -- a poem set in winter, not mid-autumn, but one that seems apt at this time of year.

                         The Course of a Particular

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry . . . One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry.  It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Collected Poetry and Prose (1997).

                                               William Fraser Garden
                                          "Near Bromham Hall" (1889)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"The Leaf" And "The Last Leaf": Andrew Young

The leaves, alas, are quickly vanishing as the wind and the rain do their work.  Yet, a few survivors remain.  Here, on that subject, are two poems by Andrew Young.

               The Leaf

Sometimes an autumn leaf
   That falls upon the ground,
   Gives the heart a wound
And wakes an ancient grief.

But I weep not that all
   The leaves of autumn die,
   I only weep that I
Should live to see them fall.

                                              Arthur Anderson Fraser
                                         "Punting on the Flood" (1891)

               The Last Leaf

I saw how rows of white raindrops
   From bare boughs shone,
And how the storm had stript the leaves
   Forgetting none
Save one left high on a top twig
   Swinging alone;
Then that too bursting into song
   Fled and was gone.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (1960).

                                            Arthur Anderson Fraser
                          "The Ouse, Bedford from Newenham" (1886)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Remembrance Day

On Remembrance Day, I shall stay with Edward Thomas.  As is so often the case, he accomplishes quietly what others seek to accomplish in high-toned language.

                                A Private

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frosty night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
'At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush,' said he,
'I slept.'  None knew which bush.  Above the town,
Beyond 'The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire.  And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -- that, too, he secret keeps.

Thomas wrote the poem in January of 1915.  He enlisted in July of that year.

                                Robin Tanner, "Still Is The Land" (1983)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"There's Nothing Like The Sun": Edward Thomas

In November of 1915, Edward Thomas was posted to Hare Hall Camp, near Romford in Essex, where he served as a map-reading instructor for officers.  During that month, he wrote three poems.  This is one of them.

               There's Nothing Like the Sun

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me:  November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang.  But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said --
Or, if I could live long enough, should say --
'There's nothing like the sun that shines today.'
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

On November 1, Thomas made the following entry in one of his notebooks:  "Sweet as last damsons on spangled tree when November starling imitates the swallow in sunny interval between rain and all is still and dripping."  In her annotation to the poem, Edna Longley identifies the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXX ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") as the source of Thomas's refrain.

        Charles Thomas Wheeler (1892-1974), "Winter Sun" (c. 1970)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"What The River Says, That Is What I Say"

Continuing with the theme of rivers, here is a lovely poem by William Stafford.  For me, at least, it is one of those poems that you memorize automatically after reading it a few times.

                           Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.  Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.  We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

William Stafford, Stories That Could Be True (1977).

                                                 Stanley Roy Badmin
                                 "Skating on Oakwood Pond" (c. 1960)

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The River": Patrick MacDonogh

The following poem is by Patrick MacDonogh, who I have previously identified as a "neglected poet."  Perhaps Wallace Stevens's "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" got me to thinking of the poem.  Or it may have been the thought of "dead leaves/On their way to the river" in Derek Mahon's "Leaves."

               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 (The Gallery Press 2001).  As I noted in my earlier post on MacDonogh, Poems contains an excellent introduction by Mahon.

                         S. J. Birch, "Our Little Stream, Lamorna" (1926)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Praise Of Saul Bellow

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

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

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

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

I see this now.  At that time not."

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

"The Region November"

I fear that the recent spate of seasonally-themed posts may have turned this blog into a Farmer's Almanac of sorts -- without the prescient weather predictions.  But the temptation in this, my favorite season, is too great and I am too weak.  And thus . . .

               The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Collected Poetry and Prose (1997).

If you prefer a seasonal variation on Stevens's refrains, you may wish to consider the final stanza of Philip Larkin's "The Trees":

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

High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

                          Stanley Roy Badmin, "November" (c. 1958)