Friday, June 29, 2012

"Let There Remain Of Me Less Than A Word -- A Little Passing Look"

In a recent post I suggested that we might wish to consider what our epitaph will be.  Another way of looking at this sort of thing may be: what trace, if any, will our soul leave behind?

Before proceeding further, I should make clear that I am not using the term "soul" in any religious or sectarian sense.  Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Nirvana, et cetera, et cetera are of no moment to me.

But I do believe that we each have a soul.  Call it, say, an animating spirit -- indefinable, ineffable, untouchable . . . flitting and transient. "Animula vagula blandula."  What trace will this fluttering, fleeting thing leave behind?

                                     Adrian Stokes, "Olive Trees" (1958)

Mary Coleridge considers this subject in the following untitled poem.

Some in a child would live, some in a book;
     When I am dead let there remain of me
Less than a word -- a little passing look,
Some sign the soul had once, ere she forsook
     The form of life to live eternally.

Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (1954).

      Frances Macdonald, "Tympanum, Abbey Porch, Malmesbury" (1941)

Coleridge's poem brings to mind the following untitled poem by William Allingham.  The poem is not necessarily about souls, but I think that it nicely complements Coleridge's "less than a word -- a little passing look" and "some sign the soul had once."

Everything passes and vanishes;
     Everything leaves its trace;
And often you see in a footstep
     What you could not see in a face.

William Allingham, Evil May-Day (1883).

                  Adrian Stokes, "Landscape, West Penwith Moor" (1937)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Sound Of Waves

In my previous post, I suggested that Tu Fu's "Thoughts while Travelling at Night" is the most famous on-board-ship poem of the T'ang Dynasty. Others may argue that the following poem by Po Chu-i (772-846) claims that distinction.  On further reflection, I recognize that "most famous" is a hollow and superficial description -- "most beloved" or "most admired" are, I think, preferable.  In any event, both poems are lovely.

     Aboard A Boat, Reading Yuan Chen's Poems

I pick up your scroll of poems, read in front of the lamp;
the poems are ended, the lamp gutters, the sky not yet light.
My eyes hurt, I put out the lamp, go on sitting in the dark;
a sound of waves blown up by head winds, sloshing against the boat.

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

                        Laura Knight (1877-1970), "A Valley at Evening"

Here is a second translation of the same poem by Arthur Waley (1889-1966), who was one of the pioneering translators of Chinese poetry into English.  Waley's translations have a lyricism to them that is not often present in other translations, yet he still remains faithful to the original texts.

     On Board Ship: Reading Yuan Chen's Poems

I take your poems in my hand and read them beside the candle;
The poems are finished, the candle is low, dawn not yet come.
My eyes smart; I put out the lamp and go on sitting in the dark,
Listening to waves that, driven by the wind, strike the prow of the ship.

Arthur Waley (translator), Chinese Poems (1946).

Nearly ten years after Yuan Chen's death, Po Chu-i wrote the following poem.

  On Hearing Someone Sing A Poem By Yuan Chen

No new poems his brush will trace;
   Even his fame is dead.
His old poems are deep in dust
   At the bottom of boxes and cupboards.
Once lately, when someone was singing,
   Suddenly I heard a verse --
Before I had time to catch the words
   A pain had stabbed my heart.

Arthur Waley (translator), Ibid.

                                    Laura Knight, "Sundown" (c. 1940)

Monday, June 25, 2012

On A Boat At Night

Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) were fond of writing poems while on journeys.  Many of the poets were government officials, and it seems that, if they were not travelling the provincial frontiers on routine bureaucratic business, they were going into exile due to having fallen out of favor with the powers that be.  (This may also account for the large number of farewell poems written by the T'ang poets -- they seem to be always bidding tearful farewells to one another.)

Quite a few of these poems were written on board ship, usually while travelling on a river.  I would hazard to say that the following poem by Tu Fu (712-770) is perhaps the most famous of these on-board-ship poems. But I hasten to add that the poem goes much deeper than the circumstances of its composition.

              Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Catspaws Off The Land" (1885)

  A Traveler At Night Writes His Thoughts

Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.

Tu Fu (translated by Burton Watson), Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

                                     W. E. Leadley, "Driftwood" (1960)

Here is another translation of the same poem.

  Thoughts While Travelling At Night

Light breeze on the fine grass.
I stand alone at the mast.

Stars lean on the vast wild plain.
Moon bobs in the Great River's spate.

Letters have brought no fame.
Office?  Too old to obtain.

Drifting, what am I like?
A gull between earth and sky.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

As I have noted before, although English translations of traditional Chinese poetry tend to come across as fairly prose-like and casual, the originals were subject to strict rules relating to the number of lines, the number of characters (ideograms) per line, end-rhyme, and tonal parallelism.  According to Burton Watson, the original of this poem was in the form of 8-line, 5-character per line "regulated verse" (which requires a single rhyme to be used at the end of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines, and internal tonal parallelism).  It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to carry over these formal features into English translations, and translators seldom attempt to do so.

                        Geoffrey Spink Bagley (1901-1992), "Rye Harbour"

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Empty Houses. Wind.

Well, as I said in my previous post, when I think of Robert Frost, I'm apt to think of Edward Thomas, and vice-versa.  And, sure enough, Thomas's "Aspens" has sent me in the direction of another poem by Frost.

The following poem is one of many that puts to paid the once-common notion that Frost is simply a kindly (albeit slightly cranky) cracker-barrel Yankee philosopher.  You know what I mean:  "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and all that.  Of course, I make no claim to originality in observing that Frost has a "darker" side.  This is, by now, a common notion as well.  (Perhaps the emphasis has gone too far in that direction.)

              John Aldridge, "The River Pant near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)


Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out in the porch's sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

Yes, there is "darkness" in Frost, but I wonder whether he isn't pulling our legs at the same time.  At least a bit.  That would be just like Frost.

But there is no gainsaying the fact that both Frost and Thomas were aware of what it means to be "in the house alone," to be "in my life alone," as the wind soughs.  Not that they would complain about it, or ask us to feel sorry for them, mind you.  But they both knew that it has to be faced up to.

                                 John Aldridge, "Richmond, Yorkshire"

And thus comes yet another turn from Frost back to Thomas.  Again, we find ourselves in an empty house.  As the wind soughs.

          The New House

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

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

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

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

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

                                 John Aldridge, "The Pink Farm" (1940)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The Aspens At The Cross-Roads Talk Together"

Long-time readers of this blog may have noticed that, when Robert Frost's name comes up, I am likely to think of Edward Thomas.  And vice-versa. Thus, not surprisingly, Frost's "Tree at My Window" (which appeared in my previous post) got me to thinking about one of my favorite poems by Thomas.

Again, the subject is talking trees.  Please note the final stanza and, in particular, the final line, which are pure Thomas and pure Frost.  It is easy to understand why, after Thomas's death, Frost wrote:  "Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had."  The stanza provides, I think, a great deal of insight into the characters of both men.

                    Edward Bawden, "The Temple of Concord, Audley End"


All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing --
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

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

                                 Edward Bawden, "Craigievar Castle"

Thomas wrote "Aspens" in July of 1915.  It was among a set of poems that he sent to Frost that month.  In a letter to Thomas commenting on the poems, Frost wrote:  "Your last poem 'Aspens' seems the loveliest of all." Selected Letters of Robert Frost (1964), page 185.

Thomas also sent a copy of the poem to Eleanor Farjeon.  After receiving her comments on the poem, Thomas wrote back to her on July 21, 1915:

"About 'Aspens' you missed just the turn that I thought essential.  I was the aspen.  'We' meant the trees and I with my dejected shyness.  Does that clear it up, or do you think in rereading it that I have not emphasized it enough?"

Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford University Press 1958), pages 152-153.

A final note:  "the night of nightingales" is very risky, but very lovely.

                                 Edward Bawden, "The Bell Inn" (1939)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Tree At My Window"

I would like to stay with the subject of the wind in the leaves a moment longer by considering a poem by Robert Frost.  Frost visited the image of trees and wind (and their sound) on more than one occasion.  In fact, one of his poems (which appeared here in May of last year) is titled "The Sound of the Trees."  On the same theme, here is another:

          Tree at My Window

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But, tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

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

Frost seems to be of two minds about the tree.  Is he wary of the pathetic fallacy?  Of anthropomorphism?  But, then again, Frost is nearly always of two minds about most things.  Just like his friend Edward Thomas.

On the one hand, he suggests that the tree has nothing of importance to say:  "Not all your light tongues talking aloud/Could be profound." Nonetheless, he feels an affinity with the tree (which is "taken and tossed" -- just as Frost is "taken and swept/And all but lost" in his sleep).  Perhaps the tree is, after all, impassive.  But still companionable:  "But let there never be curtain drawn/Between you and me."  One could do worse.

A side-note:  Frost was pleased with his rhymes in the final stanza ("about her"/"with outer").  Of the stanza, he said:  "No matter what I think it means, I'm infatuated with the way the rhymes come off here."  Reginald Cook, Robert Frost: A Living Voice (University of Massachusetts Press 1974), page 125.

                                        Doris Boulton-Maude (1893-1961)
                                          "The Garden Window" (c. 1940)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"O Voice That Ever Wanderest O'er The Earth"

Today was blustery, and along the road I walked I could see and hear the green "unresting castles thresh."  I know full well that the World keeps its own counsel.  But it is hard not to listen for a message in these leafy, emphatic iterations.


O voice that ever wanderest o'er the earth
     Lamenting, roaring, sighing,
Where was thy place of birth,
     And where shall be thy dying?

Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (1954).

                                Trevor Makinson, "Street Scene" (1948)

Coleridge's poem is reminiscent of a poem by Wallace Stevens (which has appeared here before):

     To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

                                Trevor Makinson, "Fishing Boats" (1946)

And, on a quieter closing note:

Twilight -- the only conversation
     on this hill
Is the wind blowing through the pines.

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

                              Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Only A Man Who Lives Not In Time But In The Present Is Happy"

"Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy."  So wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.  (The statement appears in his Notebooks 1914-1916, as translated by G. E. M. Anscombe.)  Easier said than done, of course.

                               Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

"To-morrow -- double Janus-headed to-morrow -- blessing and curse of frail humanity.  But for thee, the pleasure of to-day would be Heaven, but for thee, to-day's load of misery could not be borne, but for thee, we should be immortal, and but for thee, I should make my will this instant.  What art thou?  Nothing -- here in Time, where all is to-day.  Everything in that eternity which is but a succession of To-morrows."

Mary Coleridge, in Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (1910), page 217.

Coleridge's references to immortality and eternity are reminiscent of something else that Wittgenstein wrote:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.4311 (translation by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  An alternative translation (by C. K. Ogden) is:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."

      David Chatterton (1900-1963), "Vase with Yellow Chrysanthemums"

All of this can quickly become too abstract, too hard to get a grip on.  The goal -- again, easier said than done -- is to free ourselves of the tyranny of the clock and the calendar.

                         Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (1934).

                                            Norman Clark (1913-1992)
                            "Flying Kites by a Gas Works near Bexhill"

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"One Day In Every Year/A Hope That Is A Fear/Comes Very Near"

Although I am quite fond of the following poem by Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), I have never known quite what to make of it.  Some might say that it is an instance of Victorian "fatalism" -- along the lines of, say, Christina Rossetti or Thomas Hardy.  Perhaps.  (Bearing in mind that one person's "fatalism" is another person's "realism," "level-headedness," or, even, "wisdom.")

However, a good poem can never be "explained" by a single word (or by any number of words, for that matter) -- if, indeed, it can be "explained" at all without draining it of life.  In fact, Mary Coleridge makes this point very well in the following observation (which is about poetry in general, not about the poem at hand):

"There are some words that are like a flight of steps that end in mid-air, and there is nothing but the sky above them."

Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (1910), page 252.

                                    Charles Holmes, "Bude Canal" (1915)

  One Day in Every Year

One day in every year
A hope that is a fear
Comes very near.

Once, every year, I say,
"Less long now the delay
Shorter the way."

Whether for joy or woe
I say that this is so
I do not know.

Only one thing is clear:
A hope that is a fear
Comes near.

Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (1954).

                     Charles Holmes, "The Yellow Wall, Blackburn" (1932)

As for the "meaning" of the poem, something that Coleridge wrote elsewhere may or may not be helpful:

"Birthdays now seem to me to be like the lamp-posts along a road, when you are nearing the end of a long, dark, delicious drive, and however tired you may be, are still absolutely uninclined to make the effort of getting out of the comfortable home of a carriage, and settling yourself in a new house."

Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (1910), page 43.

This is interesting, but I am content to stick with "a flight of steps that end in mid-air, and there is nothing but the sky above them."

                            Charles Holmes, "A Moorland Road" (1923)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Six: "World-Strangeness"

I suspect that, at one time or another, each of us has felt the "world-strangeness" that William Watson (1858-1935) writes of in the following poem.  Of course, feeling "world-strangeness" on a daily basis may be a sign that one does not have an adequate purchase on reality.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for a spell of "world-strangeness" now and then.  It may prompt one to look at the world afresh  -- as if you were a castaway on an unknown island, seeing things for the first time, free of everydayness.

                James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "The Artist's Studio"


Strange the world about me lies,
   Never yet familiar grown --
Still disturbs me with surprise,
   Haunts me like a face half known.

In this house with starry dome,
   Floored with gemlike plains and seas,
Shall I never feel at home,
   Never wholly be at ease?

On from room to room I stray,
   Yet my Host can ne'er espy,
And I know not to this day
   Whether guest or captive I.

So, between the starry dome
   And the floor of plains and seas,
I have never felt at home,
   Never wholly been at ease.

William Watson, Wordsworth's Grave and Other Poems (1890).  A side-note: "World-Strangeness" was apparently set to music by Ivor Gurney in 1925 or thereabouts.  However, I have never discovered a recording of Gurney's setting of the poem.

                          Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Castles And "The Fond Dream"

The castles that we construct in our minds our quite amazing, aren't they? Bright and inviting realms and dark and foreboding realms.  Either way, the building and the dismantling and the re-building never end.  I am reminded of a poem by C. H. Sisson.

       The Mind of Man

The mind of man is nothing but
A repertoire of what is not,
Never was, and can never be:
So, at least, it is with me.

C. H. Sisson, Antidotes (1991).

             Harold Speed, "The Alcantara, Toledo, By Moonlight" (1894)

What is one to do about this?  Perhaps nothing needs to be done.  I do not pretend to possess any wisdom on the matter.  I do know that the beguiling but false worlds of the media and advertising and entertainment and politics and social science try their best to convince us to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and to accede to their artificial visions of utopia.  But they all have an agenda, don't they?  And they know absolutely nothing about each of us as individual souls.  All I can come up with is this:  if we cannot help but construct castles, we should at least take care to construct our own.

       The Fond Dream

Here's the dream I love.
     Stay, old Sleep, allow me this
     Yet one moment, godlike bliss.
Here's the dream I love.

Tell us then that dream?
     O, it's nothing, nothing at all.
     But I was walking young and small
In a scene like a happy dream.

What especial scene?
     None especial:  pure blue sky,
     Cherry orchards a brook runs by,
And an old church crowns the scene.

Only that?  If so,
     All would be well; but, dreams have changed.
     Dreamers are banished, joys estranged.
I wake; it is not so.

Edmund Blunden, Poems of Many Years (1957).

                         Harold Birchall, "Reflections, Etruria Vale" (1949)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Words At Once True And Kind, Or Not Untrue And Not Unkind"

On more than one occasion, Philip Larkin suggested that his discovery of the poetry of Thomas Hardy was one of the things that enabled him to come into his own as a poet.  It was the subject matter of Hardy's poetry -- its humanity and its emotional content -- that had an impact upon Larkin.

When asked by an interviewer what he had learned from Hardy, Larkin replied that Hardy had taught him "not to be afraid of the obvious."  He continued:

"All those wonderful dicta about poetry: 'the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own', 'the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel', 'the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own' -- Hardy knew what it was all about."

Philip Larkin, "An Interview with Paris Review," Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 67.

The following poem by Larkin goes well with Hardy's "A Two-Years' Idyll" (which appeared in my previous post).  Perhaps it can be thought of as a sort of coda to the "idyll" described by Hardy: the aftermath when "romance straight forsook/Quickly somehow/Life when we sped from our nook."

                                           Paul Nash, "Coronilla" (1929)

               Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us.  Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

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

The final two lines of the poem are, of course, classic Larkin.  How you react to the lines is, I think, a rough litmus test of whether Larkin is your cup of tea.  If you slap yourself on the forehead and/or shake your head in delight and wonder and/or smile to yourself, you will likely enjoy Larkin's company.  I first read "Talking in Bed" about three decades ago, and I still do one or more of these three things each time I read it.

                                                          Paul Nash
                                "Riviera Window, Cros-de-Cagnes" (1926)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"We Are Never At Home, We Are Always Beyond"

We tend to spend a great deal of time looking forward to -- or worrying about -- the future.  In the meantime, the present moves into the past.  Of this tendency, Montaigne writes:

"Those who accuse men of always gaping after future things, and teach us to lay hold of present goods and settle ourselves in them, since we have no grip on what is to come (indeed a good deal less than we have on what is past), put their finger on the commonest of human errors . . . We are never at home, we are always beyond.  Fear, desire, hope, project us toward the future and steal from us the feeling and consideration of what is, to busy us with what will be, even when we shall no longer be."

Michel de Montaigne, "Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us," The Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) (Stanford University Press 1958), page 8.

                                 William Ratcliffe, "Attic Room" (1918)

Montaigne's thoughts bring to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy.

           A Two-Years' Idyll

              Yes; such it was;
       Just those two seasons unsought,
Sweeping like summertide wind on our ways;
              Moving, as straws,
       Hearts quick as ours in those days;
Going like wind, too, and rated as nought
       Save as the prelude to plays
       Soon to come -- larger, life-fraught:
              Yes; such it was.

              'Nought' it was called,
       Even by ourselves -- that which springs
Out of the years for all flesh, first or last,
              Commonplace, scrawled
       Dully on days that go past.
Yet, all the while, it upbore us like wings
       Even in hours overcast:
       Aye, though this best thing of things,
              'Nought' it was called!

              What seems it now?
       Lost: such beginning was all;
Nothing came after: romance straight forsook
              Quickly somehow
       Life when we sped from our nook,
Primed for new scenes with designs smart and tall. . . .
       -- A preface without any book,
       A trumpet uplipped, but no call;
              That seems it now.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922).

I suspect that most of us have had this sort of experience, and it is not one that is limited to romantic relationships.  Of course, "hindsight is 20/20" (as the saying goes), so perhaps it is unfair of us to judge ourselves for not appreciating what was passing us by unawares as we dreamed upon the future.  "A preface without any book" is a very nice way of putting it, I think. This is why the Chinese T'ang poets and the Japanese haiku poets would have us look at the world around us, at this moment.

                              William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"The Emperor Of Ice-Cream"

I suspect that "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is Wallace Stevens's best-known poem, most likely because of its distinctive title.  As I have mentioned in the past, Stevens is, in my humble opinion, a master (often in a humorous way) of the titling of poems.  Reading the table of contents to a volume of his poems is, in itself, greatly entertaining.

But, back to the poem at hand.  In 1945, Stevens wrote to his publisher, notifying him that the Secretary of the Amalgamated Ice Cream Association had sent a letter to him asking what "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" "was all about."  Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 502.  I am in the same position as the Secretary of the Amalgamated Ice Cream Association.  But I don't mind not knowing what the poem is "all about."  It simply means what it says.

                            Frances Hodgkins, "Wings Over Water" (1930)

     The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).  In line 11, "fantails" means fantail pigeons.  Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 340.

                          Frances Hodgkins, "Berries and Laurel" (c. 1930)

By suggesting that the poem "simply means what it says" I may be accused of being glib and of ducking such issues as who "the roller of big cigars" is, what "concupiscent curds" are, why "the dresser of deal" is missing "the three glass knobs," et cetera.  Perhaps.  But I like to think that I am taking my cue from Stevens.

In 1933, Stevens participated in an anthology in which the editor asked various poets to identify their favorite poem among the poems that they had written, and to submit a statement explaining why it was their favorite. Stevens selected "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," and wrote the following explanation:

"I think I should select from my poems as my favorite 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream.'  This wears a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry; that is the reason why I like it.  I do not remember the circumstances under which this poem was written, unless this means the state of mind from which it came. I dislike niggling, and like letting myself go.  Poems of this sort are the pleasantest on which to look back, because they seem to remain fresher than others.  This represented what was in my mind at the moment, with the least possible manipulation."

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997), page 768.

Stevens said something similar, but more direct (perhaps), later in his life. Asked about the "meaning" of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," he wrote in a letter:  "But, after all, the point of that poem is not its meaning."  Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 500.  This explanation is good enough for me.  To wit:  "Let be be finale of seem."

                            Frances Hodgkins, "The Lake" (c. 1930-1935)

Friday, June 1, 2012

"The Planet On The Table" Revisited

About a year or so ago, I came across the following poem by T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) and immediately thought of Wallace Stevens's "The Planet on the Table" (which appeared in my previous post).  Hulme died in World War I (in September of 1917 at the age of 34).   He wrote only a few poems during his short life.  All of them are brief and "imagistic."

He is perhaps better known for his critical and philosophical writings and for his out-sized personality, which had quite an impact on the early 20th-century "modernists" (e.g., Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and others).  Interestingly (and on an entirely different literary front), Hulme and Robert Frost got to know each other when Frost was living in England from 1912 to 1914.

                      Eliot Hodgkin, "Nine Peaches in a Paper Bag" (1961)

                         The Poet

Over a large table, smooth, he leaned in ecstasies,
In a dream.
He had been to woods, and talked and walked with trees.
Had left the world
And brought back round globes and stone images,
Of gems, colours, hard and definite.
With these he played, in a dream,
On the smooth table.

T. E. Hulme, in Alun Jones, The Life and Opinions of T. E. Hulme (1960), page 163.

"The Poet" sounds like a poem that Stevens could have written.  It is interesting to see the two poets exploring similar territory.  The common theme in the poems is creation: in Stevens's words, "makings of [the] self" and "makings of the sun."  Hulme's suggestion that the act of creation is akin to being "in a dream" may find some parallel in Stevens's reference to "Ariel" (the sprite in Shakespeare's The Tempest) being the creator of his poems.  But I don't want to get too carried away with this sort of thing.  I just think that the two poems go well together.

                                Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Dead Leaves" (1963)