Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Sun, Of Whose Terrain We Creatures Are": Charles Madge

As I have noted before, when Philip Larkin compiled The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), he had a knack for finding the best poems of lesser-known poets.  The following poem, which appears in the anthology, is by Charles Madge (1912-1996).  Madge was a "Thirties Poet," and his poems (as well as a prose piece related to his "Mass-Observation" project) appeared in Geoffrey Grigson's journal New Verse.

Madge's "Solar Creation" was published in 1937.  This is only speculation, but I wonder whether the poem was somewhere in the back of Larkin's mind when he wrote "Solar" in 1964.

                         Solar Creation

The sun, of whose terrain we creatures are,
Is the director of all human love,
Unit of time, and circle round the earth

And we are the commotion born of love
And slanted rays of that illustrious star
Peregrine of the crowded fields of birth,

The crowded lanes, the market and the tower
Like sight in pictures, real at remove,
Such is our motion on dimensional earth.

Down by the river, where the ragged are,
Continuous the cries and noise of birth,
While to the muddy edge dark fishes move

And over all, like death, or sloping hill,
Is nature, which is larger and more still.

Charles Madge, The Disappearing Castle (1937).

These days, we usually see "peregrine" in tandem with "peregrine falcon," but it does stand on its own.  The OED defines the word as "a pilgrim; a traveller in a foreign country.  Also: an emigrant; an exile."  A side-note:  although it may not be immediately apparent, the poem is a sonnet with an unusual rhyme-scheme.

                 Alfred Buckham, "Aerial View of Edinburgh" (c. 1920)  

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"The Living Branches Won't Let It Fall": Norman MacCaig And Patrick MacDonogh

We have had our usual share of wind storms this winter.  In the still-leafless woods that I pass through on my walks, fallen upper limbs lie cradled in the lower branches.  Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) has written of this.

               In Memoriam

On that stormy night
a top branch broke off
on the biggest tree in my garden.

It's still up there.  Though its leaves
are withered black among the green
the living branches
won't let it fall.

Norman MacCaig, Collected Poems (Chatto & Windus 1990).

MacCaig's poem brings to mind a poem by Patrick MacDonogh, a poem that I have posted before.  However, it is a good idea to circle back now and then.


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.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (The Gallery Press 2001).

                         Edward Bawden, "Garden by Moonlight" (1954)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Direct And Stark" But "By No Means Primitive": Rogier Van Der Weyden

In two previous posts, I provided details of a 15th-century painting from the Burgundian Netherlands, promising at the time that I would eventually provide the entire work.  The painting is by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), and is usually called "The Deposition from the Cross."  It is in The Prado in Madrid.  It is believed that van der Weyden completed it around 1435. 

"The painting of the fifteenth century is located in the sphere where the extremes of the mystical and the crudely earthy easily touch one another.  The faith that speaks here is so overt that no earthly depiction is too sensuous or too extreme for it. . . . Though that faith is entirely direct and stark, it is by no means primitive on account of this.  To label the painters of the fifteenth century primitive means running the risk of a misunderstanding.  In this context, primitive can only mean coming first, in as far as an older painting is known to us; primitive is therefore only a purely chronological label.  But there is a general inclination to tie to this label the notion that the mind of these artists was primitive.  This is quite incorrect."

Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (translated by Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch) (University of Chicago Press 1996), pages 317-318.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Solar": Philip Larkin

Over the past few days, the sun has begun to feel like the true warm sun of Spring.  A pink camellia is blooming outside the kitchen window.  Wallace Stevens's words are appropriate:  "the colossal sun,/Surrounded by its choral rings."  ("Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.")  Philip Larkin is not, perhaps, the person who would come first to mind when thinking of poetic celebrations of the sun.  But -- take heed! -- Larkin is not the dour personage of caricature.  


Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.

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

Surprisingly, Larkin is so enthused about the sun that he pretty much abandons his usual forms and rhymes.  Angels even make an appearance (though coupled with our ever-present "needs").  Of course, "lonely horizontals" is there as a reminder of the other Larkin.  As is "an unfurnished sky," which brings to mind "the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless" of "High Windows."  But let's put that aside:  today is a day for a "suspended lion face."  (For another Larkin celebration of the sun, please see 'Long lion days,' which was written three years before his death.)

                                 Edvard Munch, "The Sun" (c. 1912)  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"We Can Ask And Ask But We Can't Have Again What Once Seemed Ours For Ever": J. L Carr

In my previous post, I mentioned J. L. Carr in connection with A. E. Housman's cherry trees.  I also mentioned Carr's novel A Month in the Country (1980), which tells the story of Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran who has been hired to uncover a Medieval wall-painting in the loft of a small church in rural "Oxgodby."  To quote one of the novel's epigraphs (from Samuel Johnson):  it is "a small tale, generally of love."

Carr's novel has its own connections with Housman.  He provides its second epigraph:

Now for a breath I tarry,
   Nor yet disperse apart --
Take my hand quick and tell me,
   What have you in your heart?

The source is poem XXXII ("From far, from eve and morning") of A Shropshire Lad.  Housman returns at the close of the novel.  (The following passages do not include any "spoilers," should anyone be interested in reading the novel hereafter.)  Over the past month, Birkin has discovered that the wall-painting  is an undiscovered masterpiece by an unknown hand.  Other things have transpired as well.  He decides to take a final look at the painting.

"And, standing before the great spread of colour, I felt the old tingling excitement and a sureness that the time would come when some stranger would stand there too and understand.

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in that place, regretting his land of lost content.  And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart -- knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.  They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago.  And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby.  So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow."

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980; revised 1990).  The source of "regretting his land of lost content" is poem XL of A Shropshire Lad:

Into my heart an air that kills
   From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
   What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
   I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
   And cannot come again.

                Stanley Roy Badmin, "Summer, Stopham Bridge" (1962)

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Loveliest Of Trees": A. E. Housman And J. L. Carr

In this fairly temperate part of the world, the cherry trees are in bloom.  This means that, just as Philip Larkin appears each year in May ("Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May"), so A. E. Housman appears each year in spring:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad (1896). 

The poem reminds me of an anecdote about J. L. Carr, the novelist whose masterpiece is A Month in the Country (1980).  Carr was the headmaster of Highfields School in Kettering, Northamptonshire, from 1952 until 1967.

"His ageing former pupils recalled, as in a dream, the headmaster who every year had the whole primary school march through a housing estate, past trees in blossom, all 200 of them reciting the Housman poem, 'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . .'  Forty years on, to their surprise, they realised they still had the poem by heart."

Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman: The Life of J. L. Carr (2003).

                             Julian Trevelyan, "The Cherry Tree" (1946)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself"

Earlier this week, I noted that two of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems are set in March.  The first of those poems was "Vacancy in the Park."  Today I give you the second.  Again, this is one of Stevens's late poems.  In fact, it is the final poem in his final book (his Collected Poems), which was published in 1954 -- the year before his death.

I suspect that Stevens seldom did anything without due deliberation.  He was, after all, a lawyer who worked for an insurance company (the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company) for nearly 40 years.  Hence, although Stevens is much too complex for me to suggest that a single poem sums up him or his thousands of lines of poetry, the fact that he chose this poem as his final published words bears consideration.

     Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock, in Collected Poems (1954).

                                 Paul Drury, "March Morning" (1933)    

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks!"

The poetry of Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is often a bit twee for me.  However, she does have her moments.  Philip Larkin, whose judgement is usually (apart from a few blind spots) unerring, has this to say about her:  "Her poems, to my mind, have two virtues:  they are completely original, and now and again they are moving.  These qualities alone set them above 95 per cent of present-day output."  Larkin also said (and herein lies a clue as to why he liked her poetry, given what we know of Larkin's temperament):  "Miss Smith's poems speak with the authority of sadness."  (Only Larkin could come up with a comment like that!)  Philip Larkin, "Frivolous and Vulnerable," in Required Writing (1983).

I recently posted Patrick Kavanagh's "The Hospital," which contains these wonderful lines:

        But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
        The common and banal her heat can know.

The poem closes: 

        For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
        Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

The following poem by Stevie Smith is, I think, a fine companion piece to "The Hospital."

     Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks!

The grass is green
The tulip is red
A ginger cat walks over
The pink almond petals on the flower bed.
Enough has been said to show
It is life we are talking about.  Oh
Grateful colours, bright looks!  Well, to go
On.  Fabricated things too -- front doors and gates,
Bricks, slates, paving stones -- are coloured
And as it has been raining and is sunny now
They shine.  Only that puddle
Which, reflecting the height of the sky
Quite gives one a feeling of vertigo, shows
No colour, is a negative.  Men!
Seize colours quick, heap them up while you can.
But perhaps it is a false tale that says
The landscape of the dead
Is colourless.

Stevie Smith, Collected Poems (1975).

                            Stanley Roy Badmin, "Ludlow, Shropshire"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Neglected Poets: Joan Barton

I discovered Joan Barton (1908-1986) via Philip Larkin's The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse.  In compiling that much-maligned anthology, Larkin chose poems (shockingly!) that he liked, and gave short shrift (imagine that!) to "modernism."  One of the poems that he chose was Barton's "The Mistress," which is the title poem of Barton's first collection (published when she was 64).  Barton was a bookseller who had a shop in Marlborough for 20 years, and then moved to Salisbury.  The following poem reflects one aspect of her profession:  buying books at an auction or an estate sale.

           Lot 304: Various Books

There are always lives
Left between the leaves
Scattering as I dust
The honeymoon edelweiss
Pressed ferns from prayer-books
Seed lists and hints on puddings
Deprecatory letters from old cousins
Proposing to come for Easter
And always clouded negatives
The ghost dogs in the vanishing gardens:

Fading ephemera of non-events,
Whoever owned it
(Dead or cut adrift or homeless in a home)
Nothing to me, a number, or if a name
Then meaningless,
Yet always as I touch a current flows,
The poles connect, the wards latch into place,
A life extends me --
Love-hate; grief; faith; wonder;

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (1972).  Larkin did not include this poem in his anthology, but one can see from it why he might have liked Barton's poetry.  Consider, in particular, the last five lines:  they have a certain "Larkin" feel about them, I think.     

                                         Norman Clark (1913-1992)
                           "Still Life by a Window with The Listener"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"March . . . Someone Has Walked Across The Snow, Someone Looking For He Knows Not What"

Two of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems are set in March.  Stevens is a fine poet of winter (and of snow in particular).  He is equally fine when it comes to . . . well, the end of winter.  Here is the first of the two poems (the other will come in a few days).

                 Vacancy in the Park

March . . . Someone has walked across the snow,
Someone looking for he knows not what.

It is like a boat that has pulled away
From a shore at night and disappeared.

It is like a guitar left on a table
By a woman, who has forgotten it.

It is like the feeling of a man
Come back to see a certain house.

The four winds blow through the rustic arbor,
Under its mattresses of vines.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

This poem was written when Stevens was in his seventies.  It was published the year before his death.  I have suggested previously that Stevens's late poems have a character that is quite different from his earlier work -- they are less ostentatious and abstract, more straightforward and emotional.  Yet, things are still approached at an angle -- you have to listen to the music and just let it sink in for a while.

                              Pekka Halonen, "Hare in Snow" (c. 1899) 

Friday, March 11, 2011

"He Has No Nice Felicities That Shrink From Giant Horrors": Charlotte Smith

R. S. Thomas's "The Cat and the Sea" got me to thinking of poems that are set on seaside cliffs.  Here is a sonnet by Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), who was responsible for bringing the sonnet back to life in the late-18th century.

     On Being Cautioned Against Walking On
   A Headland Overlooking The Sea, Because
          It Was Frequented By A Lunatic.

Is there a solitary wretch who hies
   To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
   Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
   Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-utter'd lamentation, lies
   Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
   I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
   From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.

Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets and Other Poems (Second Edition, 1800).  The italicized words in line 11 appear as such in the original.  In a note to the line, Smith states that the words have their source in two lines from Horace Walpole's The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (1791):  "'Tis delicate felicity that shrinks/When rocking winds are loud."

As to the subject matter and tenor of the poem:  Smith's poems are often reflective of a difficult life.  Her father forced her into an unwanted marriage at the age of 15, and she subsequently had 12 children.  Her husband was a spendthrift (in addition to being a philanderer), and, when he was sent to debtor's prison, she joined him there.  She eventually left him, and supported herself and her children with her writing (which included both novels and her sonnets).  When the popularity of her novels began to wane, she fell into poverty.   

                             John Constable, "Weymouth Bay" (c. 1819)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"The Cat And The Sea"

I am here to report that Life does indeed imitate Art.  I take my afternoon walks along a bluff above Puget Sound.  On most days, the Olympic Mountains (sometimes their snowy heights, sometimes only their tiered, green-blue foothills) can be seen across the water to the west.  A few days ago, I saw a black cat sitting in a field with the Sound as a backdrop.  He or she was likely out on the prowl from one of the nearby houses.  And here is the Art (set in March as well):

   The Cat and the Sea

It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea's mirror.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (1958).

                                   Richard Eurich, "Cornwall" (c. 1958) 

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Lost World, Part Two: "All Events Had Much Sharper Outlines Than Now"

Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) stated that he began writing The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919) in order to "better understand the art of the van Eyck brothers and that of their successors and to view these artists in the context of the life of their time."  As I mentioned in a previous post, Jan van Eyck was one of the many remarkable painters at work in the Burgundian Netherlands in the 15th century.  These painters included his brother Hubert as well as, among others, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. 

In the previous post, I included a detail from a painting by an artist of the period.  I promise that I will disclose the name of the artist and the title of the painting in a later post.  But, for now, here are two more details from the painting, accompanied by passages from The Autumn of the Middle Ages.  Huizinga wrote in Dutch.  The following translations are by Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch from an edition published in 1996 by The University of Chicago Press.

"When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now.  The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child.  Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable life style."

"There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way.  Sickness contrasted more strongly with health.  The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils. . . . Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise.  The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hospital Poems, Part Two: "Nothing Whatever Is By Love Debarred"

Quite some time ago, I started a Hospital Poems series, but only got as far as John Betjeman's "The Cottage Hospital."  I have been led (cheerfully) down other paths since that time.  As I noted in Part One of the series, I am not aware of (nor have I looked for) an anthology of poems about hospitals.  This is merely a personal selection of poems that I have stumbled upon over the years.  Today's poem is by Patrick Kavanagh.  

                              The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital:  square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins -- an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things:  the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960).

A note on the reference to "the Rialto Bridge":  in 1955, Kavanagh had a cancerous lung removed at the Rialto Hospital in Dublin.  He later gave his surgeon a signed copy of one of his books, inscribing it:  "a token of remembrance of a curious happiness I knew when in the Rialto Hospital a year ago."

                                                Francesco Guardi
                          "Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge" (c. 1780)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

For Edward Thomas

Today is Edward Thomas's birthday.  He was born in 1878.  The following poem is by Elizabeth Jennings.

                 For Edward Thomas

I have looked about for you many times,
Mostly in woods or down quiet roads,
Often in birds whose question-times
Sound like the echo of your moods

When sombre.  I've not found you yet
In day sounds or dream-threaded night
You watched through, tired-eyed.  I set
Such places by, finding no sight

Of you in this strange hunt.  I turn
Back to your words.  You do not haunt
Them either.  Suddenly I learn
Your art of being reticent,

Of leaving birds, trees, hills alone.
You left no spirit in any place
Or spoors of yours where you had gone.
Yet, though there is no print or trace

Of you, I see a different way,
As if your writing were a shine
Upon cool suns, your words the play
Of stars with water, your dark -- mine.

Elizabeth Jennings, Consequently I Rejoice (Carcanet 1977).

                                         Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Lost World, Part One: "The Backward Glance"

I am not fond of the artists of the "High Renaissance."  I confess that Michelangelo, da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael leave me cold.  Instead, I prefer the artists of the early- to mid-15th century, when the influence of the Middle Ages was still present.  Thus, in Italy, I favor Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) and Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421-1497) -- in particular, Fra Angelico's frescoes in San Marco and Gozzoli's frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

But the best painting of the 15th century lies, in my humble opinion, not in Italy, but in the Burgundian Netherlands (the various duchies and fiefdoms ruled by the House of Valois-Burgundy).  The art is sometimes designated as "early Netherlandish painting" or "late Gothic painting," and the artists (for instance, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden) are sometimes identified as "the Flemish Primitives."  But the labels are irrelevant.  In fact, as soon as I typed them, I got a queasy feeling -- I do not wish to enter the land of art-critical jargon. 

Instead, we are better off just looking.  Here is a detail from a painting by one of the best artists of the time.  For now, I will not identify the artist, because I do not want a name to get in the way of looking.  I intend to re-visit the painting in a subsequent post, where all will be revealed.                 

Of course, there is much that can be said, starting with the colors, the textures, the movement, the "minute particulars" . . . but I get that queasy feeling again.  However, the painting does prompt me to say this (and thus sound like a reactionary):  the idea that civilization progresses over time is, to quote the title of a poem by C. S. Lewis, "a vulgar error."  Here are two stanzas from the poem:

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.