Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Well, Well! All's Past Amend, Unchangeable. It Must Go."

One hundred years ago this month Thomas Hardy began writing the sequence of poems that he would later publish under the title "Poems of 1912-13."  The poems were prompted by the death of Hardy's wife Emma on November 27, 1912.

The two of them had been emotionally estranged for some time.  Where the fault lies, who can say?  What we do know is that her death provoked in Hardy, in addition to grief,  a sense of regret and self-recrimination that is movingly expressed in "Poems of 1912-13," as well as in dozens of other poems that Hardy wrote until his death in 1928.

The first poem in the sequence is "The Going."  Hardy includes a postscript to the poem dating it "December 1912."  I first read "The Going" when I was too young to know what grief and regret are.  Still, its final stanza (which appears below) left me speechless -- and made me realize that Hardy was a poet who would stay with me throughout my life.

         Albert Reuss (1889-1975), "Green Fence, Driftwood, and Pebbles"

          Well, well!  All's past amend,
          Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
          That such swift fleeing
          No soul foreseeing --
Not even I -- would undo me so!

Thomas Hardy, "Poems of 1912-13," Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914).

Of course, one response to "The Going" and the other poems about Emma might be:  "Perhaps you would not have suffered such regret and self-recrimination if you had treated her properly while she was still alive!" "Too little, too late," or something like that.  I think not.  I find it presumptuous to act as a Regret Policeman for others.  I do know this:  on the evidence of the poems, Hardy was stricken to the core.  I am willing to take him on his word.

  Albert Reuss, "Two White Manikins" (1968)

             The Walk

   You did not walk with me
   Of late to the hill-top tree
        By the gated ways,
        As in earlier days;
        You were weak and lame,
        So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

   I walked up there to-day
   Just in the former way;
        Surveyed around
        The familiar ground
        By myself again:
        What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.

Thomas Hardy, Ibid.

                        Albert Reuss, "Apples and White Sculpture" (1958)

Friday, December 28, 2012

"The Curse Of Literacy. And The Greed For Knowing."

In winter, on my daily walks, I always enjoy seeing the bushes with white berries.  At this time of year, the bushes have long ago lost their leaves. The creamy white berries -- which are the same size and shape as blueberries -- tend to grow in bunches out on the tips of the twigs that extend from branches.  The newer branches range in color from rusty brown to red.  The older branches are grey, and are often covered with moss.

On a gloomy day, the white berries seem to gather in all of the available light.

What name do these bushes go by?  I don't know.  I've been looking at them for years, and I've been content to call them "the bushes with white berries."  Mind you, I greatly admire those who know the names of all things.  And as for those who can rattle off the Latin binomials for every flower, tree, and bird they come across:  I envy them their curiosity, diligence, and knowledge.

But I am content with "the bird with the yellow head, black beak, and yellow-striped wings" and "the tree with the big, dark-green leaves that fall first in autumn."

And "the bushes with white berries."  The berries that, on certain days in winter, gather in all of the light.

                   John Aldridge, "Artichokes and Cathay Quinces" (1967)

          1,800 Feet Up

The flower -- it didn't know it --
was called dwarf cornel.
I found this out by enquiring.

Now I remember the name
but have forgotten the flower.

-- The curse of literacy.

And the greed for knowing. --
I'll have to contour again
from the Loch of the Red Corrie
to the Loch of the Green Corrie
to find what doesn't know its name,
to find what doesn't even know
it's a flower.

Since I believe in correspondences
I shrink in my many weathers
from whoever is contouring immeasurable space
to find what I am like -- this forgotten thing
he once gave a name to.

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

                                        John Aldridge, "Still Life" (1958)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Acquainted With The Night"

Edward Thomas's "Out in the Dark" concludes with the following stanza:

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

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

I suggested in my previous post that "if you love it not" is quintessential Thomas.  It is also one of those phrases that sounds like quintessential Robert Frost.  After Thomas's death, Frost once referred to him as "the only brother I ever had."  There are lines and stanzas -- even entire poems -- that sound as if they could have been written by either of them.

This has to do with the beauty of the words, but it also has to do with the use to which the words are put.  Often, this use entails the sort of wondrous, seemingly out-of-the-blue twist embodied in "if you love it not": a twist that flows back through the entire poem and gives it -- suddenly -- a breadth and depth that can take your breath away.

           Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1918-1924)

          Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

Thomas and Frost were both well-acquainted with the night.  Night means darkness -- literally and figuratively; outside and inside.  But, remember: "if you love it not . . ."  

            Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1911-1914)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas, Part Seven: "Out In The Dark"

Edward Thomas wrote the following poem on December 24, 1916:  his last Christmas Eve in England; his last Christmas Eve.  He was killed at the Battle of Arras less than four months later.

Given these circumstances, there is a temptation to, in retrospect, read things into the poem that are perhaps not there.  In fact, the subject and the emotional tenor of the poem are characteristic of the Edward Thomas that one comes to know from all of his poems.  His personality is evident throughout the poem.  In this regard, I refer you in particular to a phrase in the final line that is quintessential (and lovely) Thomas:  "if you love it not."  The entire poem turns upon those words.

                                    Samuel Palmer, "The Bellman" (1879)

       Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

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

               Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Snow Falling on a Town"

After Thomas's death, his wife Helen sent a volume of his posthumously-published poetry to Thomas Hardy.  Hardy wrote a letter to her thanking her for the gift, and praising the poetry.  Later, Hardy wrote the following poem.

 The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House

One without looks in to-night
        Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in to-night
        As we sit and think
        By the fender-brink.

We do not discern those eyes
        Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
        Wondering, aglow,
        Fourfooted, tiptoe.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922).

It is nice to think that Hardy may have written the poem with "Out in the Dark" in mind.  However, to my knowledge, there is no direct evidence that this is the case.

                                          Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas, Part Six: "The Hearth"

R. S. Thomas was never one to mince words.  Thus, not surprisingly, his Christmas poems (several of which I have posted here previously) have a touch of Thomas's fierceness to them.  But they also have an undercurrent of peace and serenity.  (Again, not surprisingly.  Thomas was not as much of a curmudgeon as he is sometimes made out to be.  Yes, he often presents a fairly brusque and forbidding surface, but this often serves as a mask, I think.)

The following poem is an instance of what I am trying to describe:  a bit of peace, a bit of serenity, even a whisper of love -- and a dose of fierceness for good measure.  There is nobody quite like R. S. Thomas.

                                     Stanley Spencer, "Fire Alight" (1936)

            The Hearth

In front of the fire
With you, the folk song
Of the wind in the chimney and the sparks'
Embroidery of the soot -- eternity
Is here in this small room,
In intervals that our love
Widens; and outside
Us is time and the victims
Of time, travellers
To a new Bethlehem, statesmen
And scientists with their hands full
Of the gifts that destroy.

R. S. Thomas, H'm (1972).

                                                  Charles Mahoney
                  "Christmas Tree Viewed Through Red Curtains" (c. 1952)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas, Part Five: "I Should Go With Him In The Gloom, Hoping It Might Be So"

In my previous post I suggested that any (alleged) pessimism in Thomas Hardy's world-view is free of cynicism and misanthropy.  Take, for example, the following poem.  Hardy wrote the poem when he was 75.  It was first published in The Times on December 24, 1915, when the ever-increasing horror of the First World War had become manifest.  When the poem was reprinted in subsequent editions of his poetry, Hardy included "1915" as a subscript, presumably as a reminder of the historical context in which the poem was written.

                          Ben Nicholson, "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

                    The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
     'Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
     By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
     They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
     To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
     In these years!  Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
     'Come; see the oxen kneel

'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
     Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
     Hoping it might be so.


Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).  A "barton" is a farmyard.  A "coomb" is, according to the OED, "a deep hollow or valley."

I take Hardy on his word.  At some point in his life he lost his faith.  But there is no mockery in the poem.  There is no air of superiority.  There is no implicit "who would believe that!"

I am in complete agreement with him.  Yes, it is true:  "So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!"  We moderns are quite sophisticated, as well as unillusioned and undeceived, aren't we?  But a question remains:  would you or would you not "go with him in the gloom/Hoping it might be so"?

                                    Edvard Munch, "Starry Night" (1893)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas, Part Four: "The Reminder"

Thomas Hardy is often described as a pessimist.  But, as I have noted before, one person's pessimism is another person's realism.  The way I see it, Hardy did not avert his eyes and he faithfully reported what he saw.

Moreover, Hardy was neither a cynic nor a misanthrope.  Yes, he may have come to gloomy conclusions about how Life and the Universe run their course.  However, his empathy and his fellow-feeling (a phrase that seems quaint in these times) are apparent throughout his poetry.

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

            The Reminder

While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.

There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, -- constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.

Why, O starving bird, when I
One day's joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909).

The following passage by David Cecil is apt:

"Summarised in cold print, Hardy's view of life would suggest that his poems are depressing reading.  Perhaps they ought to be; but they are not. Books that depress are written by those who do not respond to life, who are unable to enjoy or appreciate or love.  Hardy on the contrary was unusually able to enjoy and appreciate and love.  Indeed his tragic sense comes from the tension he feels between his sense of man's capacity for joy and his realisation that this is all too often disastrously thwarted.
. . . . .
His poems bear the recognisable stamp of his personality, simple, sublime, lovable.  Here we come to the central secret of the spell he casts.  It compels us because it brings us into immediate contact with a spirit that commands our hearts as well as our admiration. . . . His integrity is absolute.  He faces life at its darkest, he is vigilant never to soften or to sentimentalise; yet he never strikes a note of hardness or brutality.  His courage in facing hard facts is equalled by his capacity to pity and sympathise."

David Cecil, "The Hardy Mood," in F. B. Pinion (editor), Thomas Hardy and the Modern World (1974).

                   Elizabeth Kenyon, "Kennels Corner, Stratford St. Mary"

Cecil's remarks about Hardy's "integrity" bring to mind Thom Gunn's comment (which I have previously posted here) that, when reading Hardy's poetry, he had a "feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me."  Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1982), page 105.

I am also reminded of Kingsley Amis's comment on Edward Thomas, which has also appeared here before, but is worth revisiting:

"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.

Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas are, I think, two of a kind.

                         Elizabeth Kenyon, "The Meadows, Higham Church"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas, Part Three: "Christmas, Someone Mentioned, Is Almost Upon Us"

The following poem by Patrick Kavanagh comes from the period of high spirits that he experienced in the mid- to late-1950s following his successful surgery for lung cancer in the spring of 1955.  As I have noted in previous posts, Kavanagh experienced a poetic rebirth during this period, and his poems of the time are marked by ecstatic verbal flights about the wonder and beauty of Life and of the World.

In this case, the approach of Christmas sends him off on unexpected, but beguiling, tangents.

                            Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Hyacinth Bulbs" (1966)


Christmas, someone mentioned, is almost upon us
And looking out my window I saw that Winter had landed
Complete with the grey cloak and the bare tree sonnet,
A scroll of bark hanging down to the knees as he scanned it.
The gravel in the yard was pensive, annoyed to be crunched
As people with problems in their faces drove by in cars,
Yet I with such solemnity around me refused to be bunched,
In fact was inclined to give the go-by to bars.
Yes, there were things in that winter arrival that made me
Feel younger, less of a failure, it was actually earlier
Than many people thought; there were possibilities
For love, for South African adventure, for fathering a baby,
For taking oneself in hand, catching on without a scare me, or
Taking part in a world war, joining up at the start of hostilities.

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

                                                       Eliot Hodgkin
                        "A Pictorial Recipe For Your Plum Pudding" (1961)

The poem is in the 14-line quasi-sonnet form that Kavanagh often favored during his "Canal Bank" period.  I say "quasi-sonnet" because, to purists, he was not always precise in his meters and rhymes.  However, I am no purist, and I find his playful use of the form perfect for his mood at the time.

As to what it all "means," who knows?  For instance, I don't know quite what to make of the list of "possibilities" in the last four lines.  "Catching on without a scare me" may be an idiomatic expression that I am unaware of.  "Taking part in a world war, joining up at the start of hostilities" perhaps reflects the Cold War frights of the time (the poem was first published in a periodical in 1959).  I suppose the point may be that, in Kavanagh's euphoric, death-dodging state of mind, anything that comes his way bears the possibility of wonder and joy.  Something to bear in mind at this time of year (or at any time of year).

                                        Eliot Hodgkin, "Quinces" (1969)

Friday, December 14, 2012

How To Live, Part Eighteen: "In Broken Images"

I am wary of those who are preternaturally self-assured, particularly when it comes to matters of politics, philosophy, and religion.  I tend to assume that they have arrived at their level of certitude by leaving something out of account.  The question then arises:  Have they left something out of account inadvertently (through ignorance, sloth, and/or lack of curiosity) or intentionally (making them untrustworthy and/or dangerous)?

Perhaps this marks me as a cynic.  But I believe that any truth that we are fortunate enough to encounter in this world arrives in momentary flashes, not in systems, creeds, or over-arching explanations, however well-intentioned.  (And we all know where good intentions lead us, don't we?)

This may explain, at least in part, my attraction to poetry.  Although I do not believe that the purpose of poetry is to "teach" us anything, I do believe that a good poem (emphasis on good) provides an inkling of truth about Life or the World.  (But this does not mean that the purpose of poetry is to edify.  Nor does it mean that the intimation of truth embodied in a poem can be explicated or explained.)

                         Stephen McKenna, "An English Oak Tree" (1981)

                In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

Robert Graves, Poems 1929 (1929).

The approach to life suggested by Graves in the poem reminds me of his poem "Flying Crooked," which I have posted here previously.

                                     Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas, Part Two: "Earth Grown Old"

Christina Rossetti's best-known poem is usually sung or listened to, not read.  I suspect that many of those who sing or listen to the verses are not aware that they were written by Rossetti.  Here is the first stanza of the poem:

In the bleak mid-winter
   Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
   Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
   Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
   Long ago.

Christina Rossetti, "A Christmas Carol," in Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875 edition).  The lines "Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/Snow on snow" are particularly lovely, I think.

The poem was first published in a periodical in 1872.  Rossetti died in 1894.  In 1906, Gustav Holst set the poem to music.

                  Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Mainstreet, Roros" (1904)

The line "Earth stood hard as iron" in the first stanza of "A Christmas Carol" seems to lead naturally to another seasonal poem by Rossetti.


Earth grown old, yet still so green,
          Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
          Earth grown old.

          We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
          Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
          When will life burst thro' her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
          Earth grown old.

Christina Rossetti, Verses (1893).

As I have mentioned on other occasions, a significant amount of Rossetti's poetry consists of devotional verse.  "Advent" falls within that category. Who are the "millions" who "lie hid between/Inner swathings of her fold"? I presume that they may be those who (to quote from another Rossetti poem) are "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over."  Beyond that, I am not qualified to opine on the "meaning" of the poem.  Rossetti has a mystical strain that gives much of her religious verse a riddling quality. And one often senses that her non-theological world lies somewhere between the lines as well.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas, Part One: "We Are Folded All In A Green Fable"

My Christmas memories were formed in part by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.  During the Sixties, Goodyear annually issued a series of records (yes, 33 and 1/3 rpm records) titled The Great Songs of Christmas. The albums featured the best singers of the time, many of whom may be unknown to my younger readers:  Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Sammy Davis, Jr., et cetera.  I remember my father buying the record at the tire store each year, about the time that the first snow fell.  We listened to the music as we decorated the tree.

Ah, the innocence!   

                              Stanley Cursiter, "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

     Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (1989).

Except for brief periods, George Mackay Brown spent his entire life in Orkney.  His poetry and prose reflect both the agricultural life and the sea life of the islands.  As "Christmas Poem" suggests, the world of Orkney seems to be a timeless one, or, perhaps better, one that moves with the rhythm of Time.

                              Bet Low, "In the Hoy Hills (Orkney)" (1977)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Mute Opinion"

My previous post included a rant about busybodies.  I always regret these outbursts.  True, busybodies are both noisy and noisome:  politics and "activism" since the 1960s have been one big self-help project calculated to make the participants feel better about themselves.  To wit:  "Look at me! Aren't I progressive, intelligent, tolerant, open-minded, and caring?" Reply:  "Uh, actually, no."

However, we should remember that the ultimate impact of busybodies upon what is really important in humanity is always negligible.  This is the fate of all those who presume to meddle with Human Nature, isn't it?

Thomas Hardy may help to put things in perspective.

        William MacLeod, "London Wall and St. Giles Cripplegate" (1941)

         Mute Opinion


I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.


When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).

Of course, Hardy does not hold a monopoly on the ability to help us put things in perspective.  For instance, the Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty and the Japanese haiku poets of the 17th and 18th centuries tell us the same thing:  "Get over yourself."

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 364.

     William MacLeod, "Trinity Square, with Ruins of London Wall" (1948)

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Most of the world's problems (apart from natural catastrophes) are caused by busybodies who believe that they know what is best for the rest of us. These busybodies include politicians, self-described political "activists," self-described "progressives" (experience has taught me to immediately run away from any person who claims to be a "progressive":  the self-regard and the lack of self-awareness embodied in such a claim are frightening), social "scientists" (scare quotes required), religious fanatics of all stripes, media mouthpieces and shills, and "journalists" (scare quotes again required).

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

All of these busybodies have one thing in common:  an agenda.  They believe that there is a problem to be solved and they intend to solve it.  Oh, yes, there is one more thing that they all have in common:  as they see it, they are not part of the problem; we, however, are.

Nothing is new under the sun.  It has always been thus, and will always be thus.  Only the identities of the busybodies and the contents of their utopian agendas change.  Which is why I aspire to be an apolitical quietist.  (Albeit one who is admittedly subject to fits of incredulity and exasperation at some fresh piece of lunacy.)

                   Norman Clark, "View over the Village of Hurstpierpoint"

        A Man I Agreed With

He knew better than to admire a chair
and say What does it mean?

He loved everything that accepted
the unfailing hospitality of his five senses.
He would say Hello, caterpillar or
So long, Loch Fewin.

He wanted to know
how they came to be what they are:
But he never insulted them by saying
Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do you mean?

In this respect he was like God,
though he was godless. -- He knew the difference
between What does it mean to me?
and What does it mean?

That's why he said, half smiling,
Of course, God, like me,
is an atheist.

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

                 Norman Clark, "Flying Kites by a Gas Works near Bexhill"

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?"

In my previous post, I noted the presence of talking birds in Thomas Hardy's poetry.  I would be remiss if I failed to mention that one comes across a few talking dogs as well.  Hardy's own dog -- "Wessex" -- has his say in two poems:  "A Popular Personage at Home" ("I am a dog known rather well") and "Dead 'Wessex' the Dog to the Household" ("Do you think of me at all,/Wistful ones?").

                                           Thomas Hardy and "Wessex"

The following poem consists of a conversation between a dog and a dead woman who lies in her grave.  In addition to becoming accustomed to encountering voluble birds and dogs in Hardy's poetry, one comes to expect an occasional word or two from those who have been laid away in their graves:  conversations among the dead about the living (as well as between the dead and the living) take place fairly often in Hardy's poems.  The dead seem to be good company:  they are often jolly, and they are apt to offer a helpful perspective on life for those of us who remain above ground.

               Wessex's Gravestone at Max Gate:  "Faithful.  Unflinching."

Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?

'Ah, are you digging on my grave,
     My loved one? -- planting rue?'
-- 'No:  yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
"It cannot hurt her now," he said,
     "That I should not be true."'

'Then who is digging on my grave?
     My nearest dearest kin?'
-- 'Ah, no:  they sit and think, "What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
     Her spirit from Death's gin."'

'But some one digs upon my grave?
     My enemy? -- prodding sly?'
-- 'Nay:  when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
     And cares not where you lie.'

'Then, who is digging on my grave?
     Say -- since I have not guessed!'
-- 'O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
     Have not disturbed your rest?'

'Ah, yes!  You dig upon my grave. . . .
     Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
     A dog's fidelity!'

'Mistress, I dug upon your grave
     To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
     It was your resting-place.'

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914).

Hardy has sometimes been criticized for his rustic sense of humor and for his quaint (in the judgment of "modernists") view of things.  In other words:  "Who writes poems about talking dogs and talking corpses in this day and age?"  I suppose that the avant-garde had -- and have -- no time for Hardy, and for poems such as this.  For that, we can all be thankful.

As for me, Hardy the poet can do no wrong.  As I have noted before, I agree with Philip Larkin who, in response to critics who suggest that Hardy wrote too many poems, of which a large number are (according to the critics) flawed, writes:

"To these . . . gentlemen . . . may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show."

Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic" (1966), in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.

Larkin offered his assessment in 1966.  It proved to be true for the century as a whole.

                          Marion Adnams, "Spring in the Cemetery" (1956)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

No Escape, Part Twelve: "Every Hearth Has A Ghost, Alack"

The theme of this ongoing series is our penchant for imagining that, despite evidence to the contrary (i.e., ourselves), there is an Ideal Place where Happiness awaits us.  I hasten to add that I am not standing in judgment of this penchant, nor am I claiming immunity from it.  I am a daydreamer and an escape artist of long standing.  Hence, for example, my fondness for paintings depicting bucolic landscapes and charming villages of vanished times.

                                      H. S. Merritt, "Bowerchalke" (c. 1942)

               Starlings on the Roof

'No smoke spreads out of this chimney-pot,
The people who lived here have left the spot,
And others are coming who knew them not.

'If you listen anon, with an ear intent,
The voices, you'll find, will be different
From the well-known ones of those who went.'

'Why did they go?  Their tones so bland
Were quite familiar to our band;
The comers we shall not understand.'

'They look for a new life, rich and strange;
They do not know that, let them range
Wherever they may, they will get no change.

'They will drag their house-gear ever so far
In their search for a home no miseries mar;
They will find that as they were they are,

'That every hearth has a ghost, alack,
And can be but the scene of a bivouac
Till they move their last -- no care to pack!'

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914).

                                    H. S. Merritt, "Sennen Cove" (c. 1940)

"They will find that as they were they are" is Hardy's version of "wherever you go, there you are."  Of course, Hardy being Hardy, the denouement in the final line is not unexpected.

If one reads Hardy's poetry for long enough a time, one becomes accustomed to encountering birds who comment upon the humans who inhabit their world.  It now seems perfectly natural to me.  I've grown quite fond of these talking birds.  They are uncommonly wise and have a pleasing sense of humor.  We are well advised to pay attention to what they say.

                          H. S. Merritt, "Bridge in the Avon Valley" (c. 1942)

Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Onset"

One of my favorite poems about the onset of winter is, well, "The Onset" by Robert Frost.  The poem begins as a sort of echo of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (which appears a few poems prior to it in Frost's 1923 collection New Hampshire):  the speaker is alone "in dark woods" as the snow commences "on a fated night."  But Frost soon heads off in a different direction, as is his wont.

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

                       The Onset

Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.

Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed:  the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured against maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper's silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year's withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

Frost is always nothing if not exact, and I am certain that many of us can testify from experience that Frost's description of the sound of the falling snow "hissing on the yet uncovered ground" is precise and perfect.  The same goes for "I almost stumble looking up and round."  I imagine that a number of us have done exactly that, whether as a child or as an adult. This is why we have poets and artists, isn't it?  To express that which we all "know," but have not yet been able to articulate.

A side-note:  a "peeper" (line 17) is, according to the OED, "a small tree frog of the genus Hyla; esp. (more fully "spring peeper") a very small, brownish-grey tree frog with a dark cross on the back, Hyla crucifer, of eastern North America, the male of which sings in early spring."  Frost's poem "Hyla Brook" (which may be found in Mountain Interval) contains a further consideration of the peeper.

              Stanislawa de Karlowska, "Snow in Russell Square" (c. 1935)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


There are snowfalls, and then there are snowfalls.  For instance, the snowfall that signals the beginning of winter is a thing unto itself.  As one might expect, it has nothing to do with the "official" date on which winter begins.  It has nothing to do with the solstice.

Rather, this particular snowfall is a sensual and emotional event.  It involves the light (be it early or late), the drift of the wind, and the way in which the snow whirls out of the sky.  A blizzard is not required.  A few flakes will do.  Something inside you says:  Ah, it is here.

                              John Nash, "The Garden in Winter" (c. 1943)


Again, great season, sing it through again
Before we fall asleep, sing the slow change
That makes October burn out red and gold
And color bleed into the world and die,
And butterflies among the fluttering leaves
Disguise themselves until the few last leaves
Spin to the ground or to the skimming streams
That carry them along until they sink,
And through the muted land, the nevergreen
Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor,
The wind go ashen, till one afternoon
The cold snow cloud comes down the intervale
Above the river on whose slow black flood
The few first flakes come hurrying in to drown.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (1975).

                          John Nash, "The Garden under Snow" (c. 1924)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Compensations, Revisited

In a recent post, I suggested that autumn's losses are accompanied by compensations.  One of those compensations is the sound of empty trees. The other day I walked down an avenue of mostly leafless trees -- only a few stragglers remained, most of them, curiously, out on the tips of branches.

The day was breezy.  The trunks creaked, as I imagine the masts of a wooden ship might creak in a wind.  Higher up, the empty branches clacked and clattered against each other.  To borrow from Wallace Stevens's "The Region November":  the trees seemed to be "saying and saying."  But not, alas, in any known language.  Which is not to say that communication is wholly impossible.

The fairy tale atmosphere of James Elroy Flecker's "November Eves" and Louis MacNeice's "The Riddle" may be apt as well.  As may be the following poem by Thomas Hardy.

                                    Emily Carr, "Inside a Forest" (c. 1935)

             Night-Time in Mid-Fall

It is a storm-strid night, winds footing swift
          Through the blind profound;
     I know the happenings from their sound;
Leaves totter down still green, and spin and drift;
The tree-trunks rock to their roots, which wrench and lift
The loam where they run onward underground.

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
          To a new abode;
     Even cross, 'tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men's feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

                                          Emily Carr, "Clearing" (1942)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"November Eves"

I am writing this in the cold clime in which I was born, visiting relatives for Thanksgiving.  Yesterday, the temperature dropped about 25 degrees in the space of 12 hours or so.  Borne on an icy wind, snow arrived in the evening.

This morning, a childhood of winters came rushing back.  "The snows of yesteryear" and all that.  Not in minute detail, but in the form of emotion. The sort of emotion that sank down into your bones decades ago, without your knowing it.  Now, here it is again, all of it.

                      John Piper, "The Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell" (c. 1940)

                November Eves

November Evenings!  Damp and still
They used to cloak Leckhampton hill,
And lie down close on the grey plain,
And dim the dripping window-pane,
And send queer winds like Harlequins
That seized our elms for violins
And struck a note so sharp and low
Even a child could feel the woe.

Now fire chased shadow round the room;
Tables and chairs grew vast in gloom:
We crept about like mice, while Nurse
Sat mending, solemn as a hearse,
And even our unlearned eyes
Half closed with choking memories.

Is it the mist or the dead leaves,
Or the dead men -- November eves?

James Elroy Flecker, The Old Ships (1917).

                    John Piper, "The River Approach, Fawley Court" (1940)

The fairy tale feeling of Flecker's poem is reminiscent of a poem by Louis MacNeice.

                             The Riddle

'What is it that goes round and round the house'
The riddle began.  A wolf, we thought, or a ghost?
Our cold backs turned to the chink in the kitchen shutter,
The range made our small scared faces warm as toast.

But now the cook is dead and the cooking, no doubt, electric,
No room for draught or dream, for child or mouse,
Though we, in another place, still put ourselves the question:
What is it that goes round and round the house?

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (1961).

                                                      John Piper
      "Tombstones, Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges (1940)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"A Leaf Treader"

As I have noted before, "wistful" and "bittersweet" are the feelings that I associate with autumn.  But autumn never makes me feel down in the dumps.  Yes, there is that ever-present background whisper that sounds something like "mortality."  But, with beauty predominating, why pay it any mind?

In the following poem by Robert Frost, autumn's leaves take on a more threatening aspect.  The whisper is more insistent:  "an invitation to grief." But, as is so often the case with Frost, a suspicion arises that he is pulling our leg.  Or is he?

                            James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

                              A Leaf Treader

I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.
God knows all the color and form of leaves I have trodden on and mired.
Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.
I have safely trodden underfoot the leaves of another year.

All summer long they were overhead, more lifted up than I.
To come to their final place in earth they had to pass me by.
All summer long I thought I heard them threatening under their breath.
And when they came it seemed with a will to carry me with them to death.

They spoke to the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf.
They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief.
But it was no reason I had to go because they had to go.
Now up my knee to keep on top of another year of snow.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

A nice companion piece to "A Leaf Treader" is Frost's "In Hardwood Groves," which I have posted previously.  The poem regards autumn with more equanimity.  Here is its second stanza:

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.

Robert Frost, Collected Poems (1930).

                          James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Nearly a year ago, I posted Robert Frost's "Reluctance," which appeared in A Boy's Will in 1913.  The following poem was published ten years later in Frost's New Hampshire.  I think of the two poems as variations on a theme that surfaces in the final stanza of "Reluctance":

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).

                  James McIntosh Patrick, "White Poplar, Carse of Gowrie"


All crying, 'We will go with you, O Wind!'
The foliage follow him, leaf and stem;
But a sleep oppresses them as they go,
And they end by bidding him stay with them.

Since ever they flung abroad in spring
The leaves had promised themselves this flight,
Who now would fain seek sheltering wall,
Or thicket, or hollow place for the night.

And now they answer his summoning blast
With an ever vaguer and vaguer stir,
Or at utmost a little reluctant whirl
That drops them no further than where they were.

I only hope that when I am free
As they are free to go in quest
Of the knowledge beyond the bounds of life
It may not seem better to me to rest.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

The territory of autumn is covered quite well by the words "misgiving" and "reluctance."  But I lean towards the sort of embrace (or is it resignation?) suggested by Wallace Stevens's "The Region November."  However, it takes a simple, direct statement to get to the real heart of the matter.

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryokan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 366.

                  James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)