Friday, December 30, 2011

Lists, Part Seven: As The Year Comes To A Close

As the year comes to a close, we are encouraged to come up with resolutions that will help us to straighten up and fly right in the new year.  I'm afraid that my resolutions are the usual prosaic suspects:  fewer words are better (i.e., don't add to the cacophony); simpler is better; kindness is better.  All of which will be broken within the next 15 minutes or so.

But here is one that I hope might have a longer duration:  pay closer attention.  The following poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) provides a good start.

   Green Waters

Green Waters
Blue Spray

Anna T
Karen B
Netta Croan

Constant Star

Starlit Waters
Moonlit Waters

Ian Hamilton Finlay, in The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry (Edna Longley, editor) (2000).

                                 Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

   Some Preliminary Definitions

Your life:
A collection of facts;
A succession of desires;
A whirl of thoughts.

Your death:

The world around you:
An intractable paradise.


               Richard Eurich, "Coast Scene with Rainbow" (1952-1953)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How to Live, Part Fourteen: "Compare And Contrast"

I am writing this in the oak-dotted and, sometimes, vineyard-covered hills of the Central Coast of California.  In the afternoon, quail visit a bird feeder out on a lawn.  Skittish but purposeful, they scurry and stop, scurry and stop, a perfectly choreographed head-bobbing group. 

The following poem by Norman MacCaig seems apt.  I would perhaps be open to charges of simple-mindedness if I were to suggest that the poem provides a wholly practical piece of advice on How to Live.  Yet, there is a truth circling about, in a good-humored way.

      Compare and Contrast

The great thinker died
after forty years of poking about
with his little torch
in the dark forest of ideas,
in the bright glare of perception,
leaving a legacy of fourteen books
to the world
where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

                     Frances Hodgkins, "Wings over Water" (1931-1932)

A poem by Michael Longley may be apt as well.

              Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (1995).

                                      Frances Hodgkins, "The Weir"

Monday, December 26, 2011


As we are still in "Christmastide" as traditionally defined, the following poem by Thomas Hardy remains in season.  It is worth a chuckle to see gloomy T. H. greeted with stubborn good will when he least expects it.  

A lesson for us all, some might say.


The rain-shafts splintered on me
   As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
   And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
   By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
   In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
   'A merry Christmas, friend!' --
There rose a figure by me,
   Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's, who, breaking
   Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
   Toward the Casuals' gate.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

"The Casuals' gate" was an entry to the "Union House" (the workhouse) in Dorchester.  "In Hardy's time any 'casual' (pauper or tramp) could apply to the police for a ticket, with which he would be admitted for supper, a bed, and breakfast." J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (1970), page 581.

                                        Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

R. S. Thomas On Christmas, Part Two

I have decided that R. S. Thomas's Christmas poetry deserves a second visit.  A side-note:  I find it interesting that most of his Christmas poems (at least the ones that I have been able to find) are in the two-stanza, eight-line form found in the following poems and in the three poems that appeared in my previous post.  It is probably merely a matter of coincidence, and may simply be a reflection of his laconic personality.


What is Christmas without
snow?  We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim

our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity's
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.

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

                       James Fletcher Watson, "Winter in Norfolk" (1956)

        Christmas Eve

Erect capital's arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon.  Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit --

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (1995).

                  William Ratcliffe, "Beehives in the Snow, Sweden" (1913)


The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (1986).

               Winifred Nicholson, "Rooks, Hyacinth and Snow" (c. 1935)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

R. S. Thomas On Christmas

The word that comes to mind when I think of R. S. Thomas is fierce. However, having said that, I feel that I have fallen into the stereotypical view of Thomas as The World's Grumpiest Poet.  To wit, the man who was peremptory when not silent, living in an unheated stone cottage on the coast of Wales.   To my mind, this makes him, well, a human being.  And, of course, there's this:  his poetry is often graceful and beautiful.

Thomas's fierceness is reflected in his lifelong battle with God.  This battle consisted of Thomas stubbornly waiting upon God's equally stubborn silence, with Thomas commenting upon this state of affairs in his poems. The battle was made a great deal more piquant by the fact that Thomas served as an Anglican priest for 42 years, ministering to rural parishes in Wales (the subject of another of his love-hate relationships).

All of this leads to a seasonal note:  over the years, Thomas wrote a number of lovely Christmas poems.  How shall I describe the poems?  A bit fierce, yes, but withal lovely.  A selection follows.


I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

R. S. Thomas, H'm (1972).

                                        John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)

                  Blind Noel

Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.

Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out.  In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (1995).

                                 John Nash, "The Garden in Winter" (1967)

                  Lost Christmas

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger.  But where is the Child?

Pity him.  He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his.  But the mind was before
Him on the long road.  The manger is empty.

R. S. Thomas, Young and Old (1972).

                                     Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959)
                         "Landscape with Trees, a Lake and a Village"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Robin, Out Of Season

Robert Graves is adept at putting a twist on things.  Thus, the Christmas robin in the following poem is, in fact, a February robin.  Still, the out-of-season robin reawakens all that is (to borrow from a well-known song) merry and bright about the holiday.  But it also brings in tow (to borrow from a well-known tale) the spectre of an uncertain future.

                 The Christmas Robin

The snows of February had buried Christmas
Deep in the woods, where grew self-seeded
The fir-trees of a Christmas yet unknown,
Without a candle or a strand of tinsel.

Nevertheless when, hand in hand, plodding
Between the frozen ruts, we lovers paused
And 'Christmas trees!' cried suddenly together,
Christmas was there again, as in December.

We velveted our love with fantasy
Down a long vista-row of Christmas trees,
Whose coloured candles slowly guttered down
As grandchildren came trooping round our knees.

But he knew better, did the Christmas robin --
The murderous robin with his breast aglow
And legs apart, in a spade-handle perched:
He prophesied more snow, and worse than snow.

Robert Graves, Collected Poems (1938).

                            Harald Sohlberg, "A View of Vestfold" (1909)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hemlocks And Peacocks: "Turning In The Wind, Turning As The Flames Turned In The Fire"

R. S. Thomas's "Winter" reminded me of one of Wallace Stevens's finest poems.  It is a poem that Stevens wrote in his dandyish, rococo earlier years, and it exhibits some of the verbal playfulness of that time.  However, it also has the simplicity of statement that marks his wonderful late poetry (i.e., the poems that he wrote when he was in his seventies).  Which is not to say that the poem is "simple."  Stevens is rarely easy.  But the poem may change the way you think of hemlocks and peacocks.

         Domination of Black

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry -- the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

Here is something that may be worth considering:  might the peacocks have something to do with A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts?  And how does The Candle a Saint fit in?

           Jan Griffier the Elder, "Dutch Snow Scene with Skaters" (c. 1695)

Friday, December 16, 2011


I intend to visit R. S. Thomas's Christmas poems next week, but, for now, the following poem by him is a nice companion piece to Norman Nicholson's "December Song," which appeared in my previous post.  (If nothing else, they both contain robins.)


Evening.  A fire
in the grate and a fire
outside, where a robin
is burning.  How they both
sing, offering a friendship
unacceptable to the hand
that is as vulnerable to the one
as it is treacherous to the other.

Ah, time, enemy of their music,
reducing fuel to feathers, feathers
to ash, it was, but a moment ago,
spring in this tinder:  flames
in flower that are now embers
on song's hearth.
                                 The leaves fall
from a dark tree, brimming
with shadow, fall on one who,
as Borges suggested,
is no more perhaps than the dream God
in his loneliness is dreaming.

R. S. Thomas, Mass for Hard Times (Bloodaxe Books 1992).

                  Alfred Munnings, "From My Bedroom Window" (1930)

I have little knowledge of the works of Borges, so I do not know the source of the reference made by Thomas at the end of the poem.  However, I once read something by Borges (I cannot recall if it was a poem, a story, or an essay) in which he referred to Chuang Tzu's parable of the butterfly.  The parable has some affinity, I think, with what Thomas writes about in the final three lines of the poem.  However, I have no idea if this is what Thomas had in mind.

Burton Watson translates Chuang Tzu's parable as follows:

"Once Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.  He didn't know he was Chuang Tzu.  Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Tzu.  But he didn't know if he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu."

Burton Watson (translator), The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968).

                          Eugene Jansson, "Hornsgatan by Night" (1902)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"December Song"

With frost on the roofs in the mornings, it feels like winter has arrived.  It is nice to see the bare, intricate branches of the trees against the sky again. Not to mention the snowmen, reindeer, Santa Clauses, and (occasionally) penguins standing on the porches and lawns, aglow from within.  The world is as it ought to be:  clear and sharp and cheerful.  For a while, for a while.

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

             December Song

                      On the eaves
A robin sings, with berry eyes
And breast redder than the dead leaves
Dangling his notes like beads,
A luminous, tinkling string.
A robin sings in the evening,
Under smoky December skies --
            And so would I sing.

                      In the sky
A star shines on the kerb of day.
The waking night from light-bleared eye
With one clear, glowing tear is weeping,
Dipping its lids to mine.
A star shines in the dusk,
Not frosted yet by the Milky Way --
            And so would I shine.

Norman Nicholson, Rock Face (1948).

                                                Douglas Percy Bliss
                      "Winter Landscape, Liberton, Edinburgh" (c. 1925)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Frost, Blossoms, Snow, And Moonlight

I am fond of the following poem by W. H. Davies (1871-1940).  It often comes to mind at this time of year.

                 Nailsworth Hill

The Moon, that peeped as she came up,
   Is clear on top, with all her light;
She rests her chin on Nailsworth Hill,
   And, where she looks, the World is white.

White with her light -- or is it Frost,
   Or is it Snow her eyes have seen;
Or is it Cherry blossom there,
   Where no such trees have ever been?

W. H. Davies, Complete Poems (1963).

                     Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Full Moon at Seba"

Over the past few months, when reading Chinese and Japanese poetry, I have been coming across images of frost and blossoms and snow and moonlight being confused.  From China, here is a poem by Li Po:

          Still Night Thoughts

Moonlight in front of my bed --
I took it for frost on the ground!
I lift my eyes to watch the mountain moon,
lower them and dream of home.

Li Po (translated by Burton Watson), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (1984).

The following poem is by Po Chu-i:

                            Village Night

Gray gray of frosty grasses, insects chirp-chirping;
south of the village, north of the village, no sign of travelers.
Alone I go out in front of the gate, gazing over the fields;
in the bright moonlight, buckwheat blossoms are like snow.

Po Chu-i (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

                                                     Utagawa Hiroshige
                                            "Reflected Moon, Sarashima"

From Japan, here is a poem by Kokan Shiren (1278-1345):

                         Winter Moon

Opening the window at midnight, the night air cold,
Garden and roof a gleaming white,
I go to the verandah, stretch out my hand to scoop up some snow --
Didn't I know that moonlight won't make a ball?

Kokan Shiren (translated by David Pollack), Zen Poems of the Five Mountains (1985).

And, finally, from Ryokan:

Fresh morning snow in front of the shrine.
The trees!  Are they white with peach blossoms
Or white with snow?
The children and I joyfully throw snowballs.

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

                                                     Utagawa Hiroshige
                           "Catching Fish by Moonlight on the Tama River"

Saturday, December 10, 2011


With the impending demise of the Euro (and, possibly, of the EU) and with the U.S.A.'s own debt piper to be paid sooner or later, we are being told that we live in "historic" times.  I think not.  What is "historic" about having to pay one's bills?  What is "historic" about politicians (presumed, with an excess of charity on our part, to be adults) throwing tantrums and jumping up and down like children who cannot have their way?  What is "historic" about yet another utopian Ponzi scheme coming to grief?

No.  The times are not "historic."

     History Lesson

history -- I tried to
explain it to the stones
they were silent

then I turned to the trees
the leaves kept nodding at me

then I tried the garden
it gave me a gentle smile

history consists
it said of four seasons
spring summer
autumn and winter

now winter is drawing near.

Sandor Kanyadi (translated from Hungarian by George Gomori and Clive Wilmer), The Times Literary Supplement (April 30, 2004).

         Charles Napier (and students), "Slaithwaite Moonrakers" (1940)


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

                Charles Napier (and students), "Marsden Cuckoo" (1938)

For further perspective on "history," you may wish to take a look at Patrick Kavanagh's "Epic" and Thomas Hardy's "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations.'"

           Charles Napier (and students), "Linthwaite Leadboilers" (1940)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Farewell To Autumn (For This Year): Robert Frost And Saigyo

It is time to call a halt to further musings on the meaning of autumn, what with the voices of Bing Crosby and Perry Como in the air and a Christmas tree in the living room.  Thus, I shall give the last word(s) on autumn to Robert Frost and Saigyo (1118-1190).

            In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

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

                           Charles Mahoney, "Allegory of Autumn" (1932)

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

Saigyo (translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite), The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964).

                                 Anthony Day, "Autumn Fenland" (1961)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Reluctance" Revisited: "All The Leaves Want To Go"

The following poem by Norman MacCaig perhaps bears consideration in conjunction with Robert Frost's "Reluctance."


Wanting to go,
all the leaves want to go
though they have achieved
their kingly robes.

Weary of colours,
they think of black earth,
they think of
white snow.

Stealthily, delicately
as a safebreaker
they unlock themselves
from branches.

And from their royal towers
they sift silently down
to become part of
the proletariat of mud.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

When it comes to our leafy fate, I opt for "reluctance" rather than "wanting to go."  But, in the end, it is a matter of six of one, half a dozen of the other, isn't it?

                        Samuel Palmer, "The White Cloud" (c. 1833-1834)

A lonely four-mat hut --
All day no one in sight.
Alone, sitting beneath the window,
Only the continual sound of falling leaves.

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

                            Samuel Palmer, "The Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)

Sunday, December 4, 2011


At the beginning of October, I posted the following thought by Edward Thomas on the beauty of autumn:  "The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence."  (Edward Thomas, The South Country (1909), page 272.)  Now, at the end of autumn, it is appropriate to hear from Robert Frost (who, after Thomas's death in France, wrote that Thomas was "the only brother I ever had").  It turns out, not surprisingly, that they shared similar thoughts about the season.

                      Elizabeth Kenyon, "The Meadows, Higham Church"


Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question 'Whither?'

Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

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

(A side-note:  Frost gives us one of his trademark confounding endings, doesn't he?  To wit:  where did "the end/Of a love or a season" come from?  I thought that this was a pleasant meditation on the end of autumn.  How and when did "love" enter the picture?)  

                Elizabeth Kenyon, "The River Stour from Stratford St Mary"

Friday, December 2, 2011

"A Lowly Hope, A Height That Is But Low"

It is time to leave the sandy shores (and deserts) of Time and Mortality.   However, before we depart, I cannot resist a visit to two sea-side poems by Christina Rossetti.

          Birchington Churchyard

A lowly hill which overlooks a flat,
   Half sea, half country side;
   A flat-shored sea of low-voiced creeping tide
Over a chalky weedy mat.

A hill of hillocks, flowery and kept green
   Round Crosses raised for hope,
   With many-tinted sunsets where the slope
Faces the lingering western sheen.

A lowly hope, a height that is but low,
   While Time sets solemnly,
   While the tide rises of Eternity,
Silent and neither swift nor slow.

William Michael Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti (1904).

Birchington is located in Kent.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti's brother, was buried in All Saints Churchyard in Birchington in April of 1882.  Rossetti wrote the poem that same month.  There are many fine things about the poem, my favorite being "A lowly hope, a height that is but low."  (Note the anticipatory "lowly hill" in the first line, "low-voiced creeping tide" in the third line, and "Round Crosses raised for hope" in the sixth line.)  And then, just when you think that it couldn't get much better, comes this:  "Silent and neither swift nor slow."  (And "a hill of hillocks" is no small thing either.)

                               John Nash, "Sand Dunes and Rocky Coast"

      One Sea-Side Grave

Unmindful of the roses,
   Unmindful of the thorn,
A reaper tired reposes
   Among his gathered corn:
   So might I, till the morn!

Cold as the cold Decembers,
   Past as the days that set,
While only one remembers
   And all the rest forget, --
   But one remembers yet.


In a note to the poem, William Rossetti writes:  "It would seem to most people that these lines also relate to Birchington; my belief, however, is that they relate to Hastings, where Charles Cayley lies buried."  Charles Cayley proposed to Christina Rossetti in 1866, but she declined.  It is speculated that she loved Cayley, but did not wish to marry him because he was an agnostic, while she was a devout "High Church" Anglican.  He died in 1883.  The poem was written in the spring of 1884.

                                         John Nash, "Norfolk Coast"