Monday, October 31, 2011


Today was windy, and leaves fell by the thousands.  Rather than pleading "Slow, slow!" (like Robert Frost), I thought:  "Stop, stop!  Not yet!"  To no avail, of course.  Another instance of the World's impassivity, a topic that I visited a few months ago.

A poem by John Drinkwater (1882-1937) seems apt.  Although Drinkwater is now known only for the much-anthologized "Moonlit Apples" ("moonlit apples of dreams . . . moon-washed apples of wonder"), he did write other poems that are worth remembering.


I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

                   Gilbert Adams, "The Cotswolds from Park Leys" (1958)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Condemn'd To Hope's Delusive Mine"

The role that hope plays in our lives is a subject to which Samuel Johnson often recurred.  For instance, his poem "On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet" begins:

Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,
   As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
   Our social comforts drop away.

On July 20, 1767, he wrote to Hester Thrale:  "I suppose it is the condition of humanity to design what never will be done, and to hope what never will be obtained."  Boswell reports the following remarks made by Johnson in April of 1775:  "He asserted, that the present was never a happy state to any human being; but that, as every part of life, of which we are conscious, was at some point of time a period yet to come, in which felicity was expected, there was some happiness produced by hope."

The following poem by James Henry (1798-1876) reminds me of Johnson's thoughts on hope.  The idea of an ever-longed for, but ever-receding, dream landscape is one we may all be familiar with (a different landscape for each of us, of course).

                           Old Man

At six years old I had before mine eyes
A picture painted, like the rainbow, bright,
But far, far off in th' unapproachable distance.
With all my childish heart I longed to reach it,
And strove and strove the livelong day in vain,
Advancing with slow step some few short yards
But not perceptibly the distance lessening.
At threescore years old, when almost within
Grasp of my outstretched arms the selfsame picture
With all its beauteous colors painted bright,
I'm backward from it further borne each day
By an invisible, compulsive force,
Gradual but yet so steady, sure, and rapid,
That at threescore and ten I'll from the picture
Be even more distant than I was at six.

James Henry, Poems Chiefly Philosophical (1856).

                   Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The Hundred Last Leaves Stream Upon The Willow"

In November of 1916, Edward Thomas sent a draft of "The Long Small Room" to Eleanor Farjeon.  After receiving her comments on the poem, Thomas wrote back:

"I am worried about the impression the willow made on you.  As a matter of fact I started with that last line as what I was working to.  I am only fearing it has a sort of Japanesy suddenness of ending.  But it is true, whether or not it is a legitimate switch to make."

Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon (letter postmarked November 15, 1916), in Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (1958), page 221.

                    The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide.  I liked it.  No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same -- this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (2008).

                              William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

The final line that Thomas worried about is, of course, beautiful.  It was certainly well worth "working to" once Thomas had found it.  After all, it passed his ultimate test, the test that causes us to remember his poetry:  "it is true."  And the line does, to use his words, give the poem something of a "Japanesy suddenness of ending."  (I would also suggest that the ending is reminiscent of a number of Chinese poems from the T'ang Dynasty.)  It is not likely that Thomas had any translations of Ryokan's poetry available to him, but the following poems perhaps provide a hint of what he was speaking of.

My gate has been unbolted for many days,
Yet no sign of anyone entering the peaceful garden.
The rainy season is over, green moss is all around;
Slowly the oak leaves float to earth.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

Returning to my hermitage after filling my rice bowl,
Now only the gentle glow of twilight.
Surrounded by mountain peaks and thinly scattered leaves;
In the forest a winter crow flies.


                      Norman Clark, "From an Upstairs Window" (c. 1969)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Dance Of The Macabre Mice"

I do my best to keep politicians out of my consciousness.  The admixture of self-importance and childishness is laughable and breathtaking, but vexing.  (Particularly in heads of state.)   However, you cannot avoid them entirely.  The best that you can do is keep them in perspective and in their place.  As follows.

               Dance of the Macabre Mice

In the land of turkeys in turkey weather
At the base of the statue, we go round and round.
What a beautiful history, beautiful surprise!
Monsieur is on horseback.  The horse is covered with mice.

This dance has no name.  It is a hungry dance.
We dance it out to the tip of Monsieur's sword,
Reading the lordly language of the inscription,
Which is like zithers and tambourines combined:

The Founder of the State.  Whoever founded
A state that was free, in the dead of winter, from mice?
What a beautiful tableau tinted and towering,
The arm of bronze outstretched against all evil!

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

                         Eliot Hodgkin, "Chiswick Park in the Fog" (1948)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Slow, Slow!"

Of course, autumn is not autumn without Robert Frost.  Earlier this month, I quoted Frost's friend Edward Thomas on the season:  "Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while." (Edward Thomas, The South Country (1909), page 272.)  Thomas wrote his thoughts, and Frost wrote the following poem -- which independently echoes Thomas's thoughts -- before the two first met on October 6, 1913.


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost --
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

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

In 1913, Thomas's prose and Frost's poetry still contained archaisms -- Romantic and Victorian -- that would pretty much disappear in Frost's newer poetry and in Thomas's yet-to-be-written poetry.  There is always a danger of over-dramatizing (and over-sentimentalizing) the fateful (in a wondrous sense) meeting of Frost and Thomas, and their all-too-brief friendship, cut short by Thomas's death in France.  But I do think that the year or so that they were able to spend together -- walking and talking -- led to a stripping away and a paring down that is characteristic of their best work.

                                John Nash, "Autumn, Berkshire" (1951)

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Clouds Beyond Clouds Above Me, Wastes Beyond Wastes Below"

Stanley Cook's "View" (which appeared in my previous post) brings to mind a poem by a poet who, like Cook, was a resident of Yorkshire.   I am thinking of the setting of Cook's poem:  a vista in Yorkshire "as the threatened snow descends,/Blanking the view."  But I am thinking as well of the poem's conclusion:  resuming -- alone -- a conversation "that ended unhappily years ago/And whose unhappiness you know you had better bear."

                             Charles Cundall, "Mills and Moors" (1932)

The following untitled poem shares a similar setting, but it also shares (perhaps) the feeling that "you had better bear" something, whether you want to or not.

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow,
And the storm is fast descending
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

Clement Shorter (editor), The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte (1908).

                   Cecil Gordon Lawson, "Barden Moor, Yorkshire" (1881)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"You Hear Yourself Resume For A Word Or Two The Conversation That Ended Unhappily Years Ago"

Over the years, Hugo Williams has written three separate poems bearing the same title: "Everyone Knows This."  That phrase comes to mind when I think of the following poem by Stanley Cook, which moves in one direction, but takes a turn at the end.  


Here in the North, often at the end
Of an uphill road the houses open out
To a view, like finding a hole in the roof.
Some attic or chimney pot is silhouetted
Marking the final foothold on the sky.
The wind combs out grey tugs of cloud
And as the threatened snow descends,
Blanking the view, sometimes you hear yourself
Resume for a word or two the conversation
That ended unhappily years ago
And whose unhappiness you know you had better bear.

Stanley Cook, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (1995).

At one time, I thought that the conclusion of "View" seemed out of place given what comes before.  But I now think that it makes perfect sense. Why?  Because (to borrow from Hugo Williams) "everyone knows this."  I cannot presume to speak for you, Gentle Reader, but I have had a few of these solitary, one-sided, unexpectedly resumed conversations.  And, as a matter of fact, it is sometimes an unwonted, suddenly-opened view in an otherwise nondescript place on an otherwise nondescript day that calls them to life.  (On the other hand, perhaps I am completely off base and "Everyone Does Not Know This." Which means that I should be worried about talking to myself as I wander the streets in search of views!)

As for the final line: "And whose unhappiness you know you had better bear."  Well, that is another matter altogether, isn't it?  Best left for another time.

                Douglas Percy Bliss, "Urban Garden Under Snow" (c. 1946)  

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Autumn Evening"

Today was one of those "golden clear-blue autumn days" (to quote Steve Forbert's song "Search Your Heart" from Streets of this Town).  But these bright days are becoming ever shorter.

                         Autumn Evening

Autumn is easy, when disappointed leaves make scenes
At parting for ever from perennial boughs,
When naked laburnums in small front gardens pose
Their glistening limbs obliquely in the chilly rain.
Summer, too beautiful to appreciate,
Prints many yellow copies of defeat;
The brown sensations blow about the street
Or, thrown away by the wind, obstruct the grates.
But most in the earlier evenings someone's face
Flares for a moment at a match, or the lamplight
Cleans the darkness from a smudgy bough:
It is myself, and the mind descends like night
With infinite possibilities of truth
Upon the terraces that have taken place.

Stanley Cook, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (1995).  Stanley Cook (1922-1991) was born in Yorkshire and worked as a teacher there for most of his life.  His poems contain an interesting mixture of both the urban and rural features of the area.  Thus, for example, you find poems by him titled "M1 at Woolley Edge" and "Leaving Huddersfield by the A616." His poetry deserves a wider audience.

I cannot say that I have ever fully puzzled out the last three lines of "Autumn Evening."  The final line -- "upon the terraces that have taken place" -- I find particularly elusive.  What are "the terraces"?  Serried rows of houses in a Yorkshire town?  The empty boughs of trees?  Or something more abstract?  Or none of the above?  But the line is beautiful whether or not I know exactly what it means.  I am content to leave it at that.

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"The Last Orphan Leaf Of Naked Tree"

By posting the following poem, it is not my intention to take sides in the evergreen dogs versus cats contest.  (I have likely exposed my preferences in a previous post, although I am certainly fond of cats as well.)  Rather, I find the image in the first three lines to be both clever and seasonally apt.  (And I do think that it is a fine dog poem, unexpectedly coming from an eccentric poet who is probably best known for his obsession with death.)

                                    Howard Phipps, "Shepherd's Walk"

     Sonnet: To Tartar, a Terrier Beauty

Snow-drop of dogs, with ear of brownest dye,
Like the last orphan leaf of naked tree
Which shudders in bleak autumn; though by thee,
Of hearing careless and untutored eye,
Not understood articulate speech of men,
Nor marked the artificial mind of books,
-- The mortal's voice eternized by the pen, --
Yet hast thou thought and language all unknown
To Babel's scholars; oft intensest looks,
Long scrutiny o'er some dark-veined stone
Dost thou bestow, learning dead mysteries
Of the world's birth-day, oft in eager tone
With quick-tailed fellows bandiest prompt replies,
Solicitudes canine, four-footed amities.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849), Poems (1851).

                                 Tirzah Garwood, "The Dog Show" (1930)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Boughs: Stars, Planets, And A Wasp Trap

Quite some time ago, I remarked upon Walter de la Mare's fondness for the word "lovely."  His friend Edward Thomas was fond of the word as well.

        The Wasp Trap

This moonlight makes
The lovely lovelier
Than ever before lakes
And meadows were.

And yet they are not,
Though this their hour is, more
Lovely than things that were not
Lovely before.

Nothing on earth,
And in the heavens no star,
For pure brightness is worth
More than that jar,

For wasps meant, now
A star -- long may it swing
From the dead apple-bough,
So glistening.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (2008).

                            Eliot Hodgkin, "Six Cape Gooseberries" (1954)

However, what brought me back to "The Wasp Trap" was not the word "lovely," but the thought of stars and planets in the boughs of trees.  Another instance of one thing leading to another.

                           Stars and Planets

Trees are jars for them: water holds its breath
To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.

They seem so twinkling-still, but they never cease
Inventing nursery rhymes and huge explosions
And migrating in mathematical tribes over
The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.

It's hard to think that the earth's one --
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
Attended only by the loveless moon.

Norman MacCaig, Trees of Strings (1977).

                                     Eliot Hodgkin, "Leaves" (1941-1942)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Under Trees, Revisited

Today, while on my afternoon walk, I was wishing for a long canopy of leaves as the rain moved ashore from the west.  But I had already moved out of the woods into the open fields.  In any case, waiting out the rain beneath the trees, however pleasant, is not really an option in this part of the world: once the rain starts, it may go on for hours.  Or days.  Or weeks, for that matter.


Out in the deep wood, silence and darkness fall,
down through the wet leaves comes the October mist;
     no sound, but only a blackbird scolding,
             making the mist and the darkness listen.

Peter Levi, Collected Poems 1955-1975 (1976).  A note:  the "alcaic stanza" was a Greek and, later, Latin verse form consisting of four lines and having complicated syllabic and metrical requirements (which I no longer remember).

                          Eliot Hodgkin, "A Clearing in the Wood" (1942)

                      The Elms

Air darkens, air cools
And the first rain is heard in the great elms
A drop for each leaf, before it reaches the ground
I am still alive.

John Fuller, Poems and Epistles (1973).

"The Elms" calls to mind a poem by James Wright (1927-1980).  The poem is often thought of as a classic of a certain type of early-1960s American poetry.  It was published in 1963.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's
      Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break (1963).  An aside:  being a native Minnesotan, I have long had a sentimental attraction to this poem, even though I do not recall ever having been in Pine Island (which I am certain is lovely).

                                    Paul Nash, "The Stackyard" (c. 1925)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dahlias In Autumn

As age works away at my memory -- names, places, and dates are the usual victims -- I find that, for some reason, I have not yet lost the poems that I have read over the years.  I am certainly not claiming that they are all there, line by line, waiting to be brought up at will.  Far from it.  Rather, titles or images or lines unexpectedly reappear by association with something else.

Today, on my afternoon walk, I saw a pair of large pink and creamy-white dahlias bending towards the ground, not long for this autumn world.  And then I remembered the title of the following poem.  I have not read the poem for at least 10 years, probably longer.  But here it is again, brought back by the sight of two beautiful, unseasonable dahlias.

          Giant Decorative Dahlia

It is easy enough to love flowers but these
had never appealed to me before, so
out of proportion above my garden's
other coloured heads and steady stems.

This spring though, in warm soil, I set
an unnamed tuber, offered cheap, and,
when August came and still no sign,
assumed the slugs had eaten it.

                                Suddenly it showed;
began to grow, became a small tree.
It was a race between the dingy bud
and the elements.  It has beaten
the frost, rears now three feet above
the muddled autumn bed, barbaric petals
pink quilled with tangerine, turning
its great innocent face towards me
triumphantly through the damp afternoon.

I could not deny it love if I tried.

Molly Holden (1927-1981), To Make Me Grieve (1968).

                       Charles Ginner, "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)

Lest one think that "love" is too strong a word for one's feelings towards a giant decorative dahlia, I shall refer you back to Patrick Kavanagh's "The Hospital":  "Nothing whatever is by love debarred."  And to Stevie Smith's "Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks!":  "Seize colours quick, heap them up while you can."

                        Charles Ginner, "Still Life with Flowers" (c. 1920)

Friday, October 7, 2011

"St Luke's Summer"

Until I read the following poem by Norman Nicholson, I was not aware of the term "St Luke's Summer."  I then learned that it refers to a period of unseasonably warm weather occurring around the time of St Luke's feast day: October 18.  The unexpected arrival of a St Luke's Summer (or, as it was called in the Scandinavian and Lutheran Minnesota of my youth, Indian Summer) ups the already bitter-sweet ante of autumn, doesn't it?

                     St Luke's Summer

The low sun leans across the slanting field,
And every blade of grass is striped with shine
And casts its shadow on the blade behind,
And dandelion clocks are held
Like small balloons of light above the ground.

Beside the trellis of the bowling green
The poppy shakes its pepper-box of seed;
Groundsel feathers flutter down;
Roses exhausted by the thrust of summer
Lose grip and fall; the wire is twined with weed.

The soul, too, has its brown October days --
The fancy run to seed and dry as stone,
Rags and wisps of words blown through the mind;
And yet, while dead leaves clog the eyes,
Never-predicted poetry is sown.

Norman Nicholson, Rock Face (1948).

                                       Paul Nash, "Swan Song" (c. 1928)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"Down Autumn Tunnels, Under Yellow Leaves, Long Avenues"

Ah, well!  We are now under the spell of autumn.  The season of joyous melancholy and melancholic joyousness is upon us.  Where does one begin?

"The scent is that of wood-smoke, of fruit and of some fallen leaves.  This is the beginning of the pageant of autumn, of that gradual pompous dying which has no parallel in human life, yet draws us to it with sure bonds.  It is a dying of the flesh, and we see it pass through a kind of beauty which we can only call spiritual, of so high and inaccessible a strangeness is it.  The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence.  Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while."

Edward Thomas, The South Country (1909), page 272.

The final three sentences bring to mind some lines from Wallace Stevens's "This Solitude of Cataracts," a poem that is (at least partially) about the "lightly sleeping human desire of permanence."

He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (1950).

                       William Bernard Adeney, "Tunley Bottom" (c. 1920)

                         Under Trees

Yellow tunnels under the trees, long avenues
Long as the whole of time:
A single aimless man
Carries a black garden broom.
He is too far to hear him
Wading through the leaves, down autumn
Tunnels, under yellow leaves, long avenues.

Geoffrey Grigson, Collected Poems: 1924-1962 (1963).

                   Cecil Gordon Lawson, "Cheyne Walk, Chelsea" (1870)

Monday, October 3, 2011

"I Clutch The Memory Still, And I Have Measured Everything With It Since"

I recently posted Seamus Heaney's "The Peninsula," which ends with the following stanza:

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (1969).

The idea that certain landscapes seen on certain days end up staying with us, and thereafter serve as a sort of reference point throughout our lives, is one that Derek Mahon has considered as well.  The following poem was first published in 1968.  Thus, it is not unlikely that Mahon and Heaney were separately writing along similar lines within a year or so of each other.

     Thinking of Inis Oirr in Cambridge, Mass.

A dream of limestone in sea-light
Where gulls have placed their perfect prints.
Reflection in that final sky
Shames vision into simple sight;
Into pure sense, experience.
Atlantic leagues away tonight,
Conceived beyond such innocence,
I clutch the memory still, and I
Have measured everything with it since.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (1999).  The poem first appeared in Mahon's Night-Crossing (1968) under the title "Recalling Aran." Inis Oirr (anglicized as "Inisheer") is one of the Aran Islands.

                                Richard Eurich, "Eddystone Light" (1974)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Fall, Leaves, Fall"

The Brontes are not usually thought of as a happy-go-lucky bunch.  Bleak, empty Yorkshire moors and tragedy come to mind, of course.  I suppose that the following untitled poem by Emily Bronte fits the stereotypical image of the family.  On the other hand, it may appeal to those of us who are fond of autumn, with all of its mixed messages.

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Clement Shorter (editor), The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte (1908).

                                Trevor Makinson, "Street Scene" (1948)

Perhaps 20 or so years before Emily Bronte wrote her poem, on the other side of the world a Japanese Zen monk also wrote of autumn.

The wind has brought
   enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryokan (translated by John Stevens), in One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

                                   A. Y. Jackson, "October Evening" (1934)