Monday, May 30, 2011

"But I Learnt How The Wind Would Sound After These Things Should Be"

As I have noted before, I (like many others, I suspect) was introduced to Edward Thomas by coming across "Adlestrop" in an anthology.  Although "Adlestrop" brought me to Thomas, the following poem was the one that took my breath away -- and I immediately realized that (for me, at least) Edward Thomas would never be just another poet.  I still feel that way after about three decades.         

               The New House

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain:  old griefs, and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.

Thomas wrote the poem in March of 1915.  The house referred to was located at Wick Green near Steep in Hampshire.  Thomas's family began living there in December of 1909.  The house was located on a hill.  Hence the wind.

How I feel about "The New House" in particular, and Thomas's poetry in general, is reflected in these words from C. H. Sisson about Thomas:

He is, without doubt, one of the most profound poets of the century.  What did he say?  He said what is in the poems, and there is no message beyond them.  But he belonged to the underside of the world, from which renewal must come, and he speaks with conviction of matters which may be touched and felt.

C. H. Sisson, English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (1971), page 79.

                                Paul Drury, "March Morning" (1933)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

No Escape, Part Nine: "Not Much Here But Grass And Daisies And A Gulley That Lazes Its Way To The Weir"

Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) lived in Millom, Cumbria, his entire life.  That fact may perhaps make him either uniquely qualified or uniquely unqualified to opine on the likelihood of happening upon the Ideal Place that calls to us from beyond the horizon.  I opt for the former.

     The Man from the Advertising Department

There's more to see
In the next field.
Not much here
But grass and daisies
And a gulley that lazes
Its way to the weir --
Oh there's much more to see
In the next field.

There are better folk
In the next street.
Nobody here
But much-of-a-muchness people:
The butcher, the blacksmith,
The auctioneer,
The man who mends the weathercock
When the lightning strikes the steeple --
But they're altogether a better class
In the next street.

There'll be more to do
In the next world.
Nothing here
But breathing fresh air,
Loving, shoving, moving around a bit,
Counting birthdays, forgetting them, giving
Your own little push to the spin of the earth;
It all amounts to
No more than living --
But by all accounts
There'll be more to do
And more to see
And VIP neighbours
In the next world.

Norman Nicholson, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1994).

             Allan Gwynne Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wind Revisited: "The Sound Of The Trees"

As an addendum to my recent post containing three brief poems about the wind, here is a poem by Robert Frost on the same topic, but with a twist. 

          The Sound of the Trees

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Robert Frost, Mountain Interval (1916).

Frost played with this dream of escape more than once -- the best-known instance being "Into My Own," the first poem in his first book (A Boy's Will):  "I should not be withheld but that some day/Into their vastness I should steal away,/Fearless of ever finding open land."  Of course, Frost knows that this is an idle daydream, and that escape is not in the cards.

Not surprisingly, Edward Thomas shared the same daydream, and at times he sounds like Frost (or Frost sounds like Thomas).  These are the opening lines of Thomas's "Early One Morning":

Early one morning in May I set out,
And nobody I knew was about.
        I'm bound away for ever,
        Away somewhere, away for ever.

In a letter to Eleanor Farjeon enclosing a draft of the poem, Thomas stated that the poem was "a sober set of verses to the tune of 'Rio Grande', but I doubt if they can be sung."  (Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (1958), page 199.)  "Rio Grande" is a sea shanty, and Thomas included it in his anthology The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air (1907).

                                                    Charles Ginner
                "Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex" (c. 1930)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"True And Not Feigning": Edward Thomas And John Clare

Edward Thomas wrote all of his poems between December of 1914 and January of 1917.  Some have suggested that this creative period was a sort of "miracle," given that Thomas had not previously written poetry.  I disagree.  If there was any "miracle," it was the fact that Thomas and Robert Frost met each other in 1913.  Moreover, Thomas's prose writings prior to 1914 show, first, that he knew English poetry inside and out, and, second, that he had long thought about -- and felt -- the essence of true poetry.

His discussion of a poem by John Clare reveals the depth of Thomas's thoughts and feelings on the subject of poetry.  He begins by quoting in full the following untitled poem by Clare:

     Love lives beyond the tomb,
And earth, which fades like dew!
     I love the fond,
The faithful and the true.

     Love lives in sleep:
'Tis happiness of healthy dreams:
     Eve's dews may weep,
But love delightful seems.

     'Tis seen in flowers,
And in the morning's pearly dew;
     In earth's green hours,
And in the heaven's eternal blue.

     'Tis heard in Spring,
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
     On angel's wing
Bring love and music to the mind.

     And where's the voice,
So young, so beautiful, and sweet
     As Nature's choice,
Where Spring and lovers meet?

     Love lives beyond the tomb,
And earth, which fades like dew!
     I love the fond,
The faithful and the true.

Arthur Symons (editor), Poems by John Clare (1908). 

After quoting the poem, Thomas writes:  "This and perhaps all of his best poems show Clare as one of those who have in them the natural spirit of poetry in its purity, so pure that perhaps he can never express it quite whole and perfect."  Thomas then comes to the heart of things:

"Here, I think, in 'Love lies 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 (1910), page 86.

This is the wisdom and the sensibility that Thomas already had in him when the time came for him to (at last!) write his poems.  And what he said in those poems is -- above all else -- "true and not feigning."  I return once more to what Kingsley Amis said of Thomas:

"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: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988), page 339.
            John Aldridge, "Besslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield" (c. 1950)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The Poetry Of Almost Infinitely-Qualified States Of Mind": Philip Larkin And Edward Thomas

As I have noted before, I believe that Philip Larkin was very astute in his assessments of other poets.  An excellent instance of this occurs in a letter that Larkin wrote to the poet Andrew Motion after being asked by him to review a typescript of his study of Edward Thomas.  (The study was eventually published in 1980 as The Poetry of Edward Thomas.)

Larkin admired Thomas's poetry, and on at least two occasions he stated that a volume of Thomas's poems was one of the dozen or so books that he kept close at hand near his desk.  In his letter to Motion, after making some critical comments about Motion's typescript, Larkin turns to Thomas himself:

"What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse."

Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992).

This is, I think, an extremely perceptive observation about a key feature of Thomas's personality and of his poetry.  After making his comment, Larkin does not refer to any particular poems by Thomas.  However, I will offer the following poem as one example of what Larkin may have been getting at (please note the final stanza):

                              For These

An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea,
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash-trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:

A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:

For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of fate.

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

Of course, Larkin could be said to have himself written "the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  Consider (one among many possible examples) the closing stanzas of "Mr Bleaney":

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

             Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Life Explained, Part Sixteen: "Balloonland"

In my previous post, I considered the danger of Schadenfreude.  Any number of old saws counsel caution on that front.  At this very moment, each of us is skating on thin ice, each of us is at risk of having our bubble burst, et cetera.  The cracking of the ice or the bursting of the bubble may be self-inflicted or may be a matter of Fate, but humility seems well-advised.  Consider the following whimsical (perhaps too whimsical for some) poem by Christopher Reid.


In Balloonland
is given a balloon
the day they are born.

Freshly blown-up
and with the knot tightly done,
a big balloon
is put into their hand.

A few words are spoken
by way of ceremony:
'This is your balloon,
the balloon of your destiny!
You are its guardian.
Do you understand?'

And it's no use arguing.
Red, blue or green,
yellow, purple or orange,
that's their balloon
and no one else's.
They are the owner.

So as time goes on
they watch their balloon
with increasing anxiety.
Can it be shrinking?
Is it less shiny?
What's that hissing sound?
Did they do something wrong?

Futile questions!
Some balloons
pop the day they are given,
others last aeons
just getting more wizened.
If you're looking for a reason,
goes one of Balloonland's
wisest sayings,
then apply your own pin.

Christopher Reid, In the Echoey Tunnel (Faber and Faber 1991).

                            Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Do Not!"

Ah, a week of scandals among the ruling class.  In New York, a French politician is given an American "perp walk."  In California, the former governor reveals a (no longer) secret "love child."  And, in England, a politician and his spouse face questions about the lurid details of their . . . traffic tickets.  (Something to do with "speeding points" shenanigans.) 

I -- being craven and weak -- cannot help but hear the Siren call of Schadenfreude.  But I tell myself to resist that sweet sound.  Perhaps the following poem by Stevie Smith will help.

                              Do Not!

Do not despair of man, and do not scold him,
Who are you that you should so lightly hold him?
Are you not also a man, and in your heart
Are there not warlike thoughts and fear and smart?
Are you not also afraid and in fear cruel,
Do you not think of yourself as usual,
Faint for ambition, desire to be loved,
Prick at a virtuous thought by beauty moved?
You love your wife, you hold your children dear,
Then say not that Man is vile, but say they are.
But they are not.  So is your judgement shown
Presumptuous, false, quite vain, merely your own
Sadness for failed ambition set outside,
Made a philosophy of, prinked, beautified
In noble dress and into the world sent out
To run with the ill it most pretends to rout.
Oh know your own heart, that heart's not wholly evil,
And from the particular judge the general,
If judge you must, but with compassion see life,
Or else, of yourself despairing, flee strife.

Stevie Smith, Collected Poems (1975).

                                          Raymond Booth (1929- )
                               "Magpies in the Vegetable Garden"      

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wind: Three Poems

These lines from Philip Larkin's "The Trees" return each year:  "Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May."  Here are three brief poems (the first two untitled) on the same theme.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (1998).

                          Howard Phipps, "Homington Water Meadows"

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (1987).

                          Howard Phipps, "Footbridge at Bishopstone"

     Kayenta, Arizona, May 1977

I fall asleep to the sound of rain,
But there is no rain in the desert.
The leaves of the trader's little cottonwoods
Turn, turn in the wind.

Janet Lewis, Poems Old and New: 1918-1978 (1981).

                       Howard Phipps, "Win Green from Berwick Down"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Gods Make Their Own Importance"

When it comes to Utopias, Max Beerbohm has the final word:

          In a Copy of More's (or Shaw's or Wells's
                or Plato's or Anybody's) Utopia

          So this is Utopia, is it?  Well
          I beg your pardon, I thought it was Hell.

And still some of those among us persist.  But truisms are, well, true.  For instance:  The more things change, the more things stay the same.   Thomas Hardy knew this:  "Only thin smoke without flame/From the heaps of couch-grass;/Yet this will go onward the same/Though Dynasties pass."  ("In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," Stanza II.)  Utopians (our modern-day scolds, nannies, and self-styled "progressives") are always ignorant (blissfully or not) of this:  "Gods make their own importance." 


I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided:  who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting 'Damn your soul'
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel --
'Here is the march along these iron stones.'
That was the year of the Munich bother.  Which
Was most important?  I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind
He said:  I made the Iliad from such
A local row.  Gods make their own importance.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance With Kitty Strobling and Other Poems (1960).  According to the OED, a "rood" is "a unit of land area equal to 40 square rods (a quarter of an acre), but varying locally."  A "march" is a boundary.

                                Charles Mahoney, "The Garden" (1950)   

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"The House Across The Way"

The line "there's masses of time yet, masses, masses . . ." from Gavin Ewart's "Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens" brings to mind a poem by Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962) on the same subject -- what Hilaire Belloc calls "implacable fate . . . and the strumble of the hungry river of death."  Hodgson was one of the "Georgian poets," and his verse is now little remembered.  We owe Hodgson our thanks for arranging the first meeting between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, which took place in London on October 6, 1913.  In his note to Frost setting up the meeting, Hodgson wrote:  "Edward Thomas will be up [to London] and I think you'd both like to know each other."  Very perceptive, and how fortunate for us!  

          The House Across the Way

The leaves looked in at the window
Of the house across the way,
At a man that had sinned like you and me
And all poor human clay.

He muttered:  "In a gambol
I took my soul astray.
But tomorrow I'll drag it back from danger,
In the morning, come what may;
For no man knows what season
He shall go his ghostly way."
And his face fell down upon the table,
And where it fell it lay.

And the wind blew under the carpet
And it said, or it seemed to say:
"Truly, all men must go a-ghosting
And no man knows his day."
And the leaves stared in at the window
Like the people at a play.

Ralph Hodgson, Poems (1917).

                       John Aldridge, "Charles II Street, London" (1944)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"There's Masses Of Time Yet, Masses, Masses . . ."

I have visited Yorkshire on a few occasions, and I found it and its inhabitants to be lovely.  With regard to the following poem, I consider all of us to be Yorkshiremen who frequent pub gardens.  To be specific:  "the man in charge of the boating pool" eventually calls for each of us.

            Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens

     As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers and so forth are not in their minds.
     Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do?  Each summer finds
     beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
     And so their leisure passes.

     Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts.  Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
     screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will.  Each Joe or Fred
     wants longer with the life and lasses.
     And so their time passes.

     Second childhood; and 'Come in, number 80!'
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
     When you're called you must go, matey,
so don't complain, keep it all calm and cool,
     there's masses of time yet, masses, masses . . .
     And so their life passes.

Gavin Ewart, Selected Poems 1933-1988 (1988). 

                                              Stanley Roy Badmin
               "Wharfedale Looking Towards Grassington, Yorkshire"  

Friday, May 6, 2011

How To Live, Part Six: "Not Conscious That You Have Been Seeking Suddenly You Come Upon It"

My series of "No Escape" posts suggests that the Wherever You Go, There You Are rule quashes any hope we may have of finding the Ideal Place.  R. S. Thomas -- like others -- suspects that what we seek may be right there in front of us, and that the only way to discover it is by giving up the search.


Not conscious
       that you have been seeking
       you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
             dust free
       with no road out
but the one you came in by.

             A bird chimes
        from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
        you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
        as you are, a traveller
             with the moon's halo
        above him, who has arrived
        after long journeying where he
             began, catching this
        one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (1983).

Thomas's poem is reminiscent of these lines towards the end of T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" (in Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

                                     Paul Nash, "Wittenham" (1935)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

R. S. Thomas By The Sea: "The Look Of Those Who Have Come Safely Home"

Whether deserved or not, R. S. Thomas has a reputation for not being the life of the party.  This may be due to the fact that he preferred silence and solitude to noise.  I cannot fault him for this.  (Silence is of great significance in Thomas's poetry -- particularly the huge silence of God.  Thomas, an Anglican priest, pondered that silence all his life.)

As always, we should be wary of caricatures.  For instance, Thomas found his way to the sea, and brought this back.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (1961).

Abersoch is located on the Lleyn (Llyn) Peninsula in Wales.  Although Thomas mostly abandoned traditional forms and rhyme after his first two books, he did thereafter write a number of 14-line poems that resemble sonnets.  This is one of them.

                     John Brett, "The Garrison Walk, St. Mary's" (1873)

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"

Elizabeth Bishop's sandpiper -- "looking for something, something, something" -- leads us to Robert Frost's "people along the sand."  Is the following poem cynical and misanthropic?  Or is it a wistful reflection on our shared human predicament?  Or is it both?  (Frost, I suspect, would prefer to have it both ways.)

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

Perhaps how one feels about the poem depends upon how one's day (or life?) has gone.  Randall Jarrell, who writes wisely about Frost's poetry, has this to say about the poem:

It would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza; but Frost doesn't say it unpleasantly -- he says it with flat ease, takes everything with something harder than contempt, more passive than acceptance.  And isn't there something heroic about the whole business, too -- something touching about our absurdity?  If the fool persisted in his folly he would become a wise man, Blake said, and we have persisted.  The tone of the last lines -- or, rather, their careful suspension between several tones, as a piece of iron can be held in the air between powerful enough magnets -- allows for this too.

Randall Jarrell, "To the Laodiceans," Poetry and the Age (1953).

William Pritchard -- another wise commentator on Frost -- holds the view that "you couldn't really know how to read the tone of the poem, because Frost had deliberately made its tone opaque, equivocal."  Howell Chickering, "Chaucer by Heart," in Under Criticism: Essays for William H. Pritchard (1998), page 92.

                                         John Hammond Harwood
                           "Merry-Go-Round at the Seaside" (1947)