Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself"

Any exploration of how we look at (or see) the World should include a visit to the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  For Stevens, a life well-lived is one in which there is a continual back-and-forth between the Imagination and the World (Reality).  Thus:  "Let the place of the solitaires/Be a place of perpetual undulation// . . . There must be no cessation/Of motion . . . And, most, of the motion of thought/And its restless iteration,//In the place of the solitaires,/Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Place of the Solitaires," from Harmonium.)

In his earlier poems, one gets the sense that Stevens believed that we are capable of creating imaginative structures that can transcend the everyday world.  However, as he aged, I think that he began to take a humbler view of our role in this back-and-forth.

He still recognized the importance of Imagination -- after all, he kept on creating poems into his seventies -- but one senses a less imperious attitude toward the World.  This softening is often very moving, particularly in the poems that he wrote in his last years.  The following poem is the final poem in Stevens's final book, which was published when he was 75.

                      Jack Pickup, "New Power Station from Turnchapel"

  Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954).

"It was like/A new knowledge of reality" is a lovely and wonderful (and humbling) acknowledgement to make at the end of one's life, isn't it? Especially when, like Stevens, you have devoted your life to extolling the primacy of the human Imagination.  Notice the repeated use of "outside" when referring to things in the World:  "a scrawny cry from outside . . . It would have been outside . . . The sun was coming from outside."  The thing itself -- unlike ideas about the thing -- comes from outside and stands on its own.

A side-note: for further paeans to the sun, I recommend Philip Larkin's "Solar" ("suspended lion face") and Charles Madge's "Solar Creation" ("the sun, of whose terrain we creatures are"),  as well as Stevens's own "The Brave Man" ("The sun, that brave man"), which have appeared here previously.

                                         Jack Pickup, "Teat's Hill"

A statement by John Ruskin is perhaps pertinent:  "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.  To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one."  Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XVI (1856).

                                    Jack Pickup, "Citadel Road" (1960)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"A Way Of Looking"

It is difficult to look at (or to see) the World without bringing yourself (or, your Self) into the activity.  There are two ways (at least) in which this interference takes place.  First, our minds are always abuzz with thoughts that have nothing to do with the object at hand.  Thus, while looking at a tree, one is liable to think:  "What should I have for dinner tonight?"

Second, we tend to impose preconceptions upon what we look at (or see). For instance:  "Ah, a cherry tree in blossom looking like what a cherry tree in blossom ought to look like.  Beautiful!  Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . . and all that."

Howard Nemerov's "The Human Condition," which appeared in my previous post, touches upon this phenomenon to some extent:  "a picture of a picture," the idea that "world and thought" can "exactly meet," et cetera. The following poem by Elizabeth Jennings explores this territory as well.

                         Graham Arnold, "Lift Not the Painted Veil" (1977)

              A Way of Looking

It is the association after all
We seek, we would retrace our thoughts to find
The thought of which this landscape is the image,
Then pay the thought and not the landscape homage.
It is as if the tree and waterfall
Had their first roots and source within the mind.

But something plays a trick upon the scene:
A different kind of light, a stranger colour
Flows down on the appropriated view.
Nothing within the mind fits.  This is new.
Thought and reflection must begin again
To fit the image and to make it true.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

Looking (I mean really looking) is quite a task (speaking for myself). When I go out for a walk, I often remind myself to look, not think:  to see things as they are, without the intrusions and without the glosses.  The result, alas, is failure after failure.

                                 Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (c. 1935)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Life Explained, Part Thirty: "The Human Condition"

Howard Nemerov's "The End of the Opera," which appeared in my previous post, may prompt one to think about the relationship between Life and Art, between the real and the imagined.  (Warning to self:  this is sounding too highfalutin' already, isn't it?)  But that's just a thought.  One should be wary of dragging philosophical musings into the reading of a poem.  It is better to approach these things obliquely via another poem.

                           Rene Magritte, "La Condition Humaine" (1933)

           The Human Condition

In this motel where I was told to wait,
The television screen is stood before
The picture window.  Nothing could be more
Use to a man than knowing where he's at,
And I don't know, but pace the day in doubt
Between my looking in and looking out.

Through snow, along the snowy road, cars pass
Going both ways, and pass behind the screen
Where heads of heroes sometimes can be seen
And sometimes cars, that speed across the glass.
Once I saw world and thought exactly meet,
But only in a picture by Magritte.

A picture of a picture, by Magritte,
Wherein a landscape on an easel stands
Before a window opening on a land-
scape, and the pair of them a perfect fit,
Silent and mad.  You know right off, the room
Before that scene was always an empty room.

And that is now the room in which I stand
Waiting, or walk, and sometimes try to sleep.
The day falls into darkness while I keep
The TV going; headlights blaze behind
Its legendary traffic, love and hate,
In this motel where I was told to wait.

Howard Nemerov, The Blue Swallows (1967).

                  Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (c. 1944)

Now, having just warned myself about (1) being too highfalutin' and (2) the dangers of bringing philosophy to bear in the reading of a poem, I would like to offer a few thoughts from the ever-lovable (and, alas, usually accurate) Arthur Schopenhauer:

"[T]he same external events and circumstances affect each of us quite differently; and indeed with the same environment each lives in a world of his own.  For a man is directly concerned only with his own conceptions, feelings, and voluntary movements; things outside influence him only in so far as they give rise to these.  The world in which each lives depends first on his interpretation thereof and therefore proves to be different to different men.  Accordingly, it will result in being poor, shallow, and superficial, or rich, interesting, and full of meaning."

Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne) , Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 1 (1851), page 316.

Having dug myself into this hole, I'm afraid that I'm going to dig deeper by letting Ludwig Wittgenstein have the final word:

"The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man."

Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, from Proposition 6.43 (1921).

                                    William Bernard Adeney (1878-1966)
                                                      "The Window"

Friday, January 25, 2013

"The End Of The Opera"

In my previous post, I confessed my cultural blind spot with respect to opera.  I then remembered the following poem by Howard Nemerov, which makes me wish (wistfully) that I had a greater appreciation for the art form.

The poem was first published on June 24, 1991.  Nemerov died on July 5, 1991.  Given these circumstances, his contemplation on the relationship between opera and life, art and life, takes on an added poignance.

                   Tristram Hillier, "January Landscape, Somerset" (1962)

               The End of the Opera

Knowing that what he witnessed was only art,
He never wept while the show was going on.

But the curtain call could always make him cry.
When the cast came forward hand in hand
Bowing and smiling to the clatter of applause,
Tired, disheveled, sweating through the paint,
Radiant with our happiness and theirs,
Illuminati of the spot and flood,
Yet much the same as ordinary us.

The diva, the soubrette, the raisonneur,
The inadequate hero, the villain, his buffoon,
All equalled in the great reality
And living proof that life would follow life . . .

Though back of that display there'd always be,
He knew, money and envy, the career,
Tomorrow and tomorrow -- it didn't seem
At that moment as if it mattered much
Compared with their happiness and ours
As we wept about the role, about the real,
And how their dissonances harmonized
As we applauded us:  ite, missa est.

Howard Nemerov, Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (University of Chicago Press 1991).

The ellipses at the end of line 13 appear in the original.  "Ite, missa est" is the phrase that is spoken to conclude the Mass of the Roman Rite. Opinions differ as to how the words should be translated.  In particular, "missa" is the source of some linguistic and liturgical contention.  In any event, "Go, the dismissal is made" or "Go forth, the Mass is ended" appear to be serviceable translations.

                                 Tristram Hillier, "Flooded Meadow" (1949)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Five: "Grand Opera"

I have a confession to make.  A confession that does not reflect well on me at all.  Here it is:  I have never been able to develop an appreciation for opera.

For this bit of cultural ignorance, I beg the indulgence of any readers who are fond of the art form.  The fault is all mine.  I realize that there are opera devotees who will travel the globe to experience the latest version of The Ring Cycle in Bayreuth.  I can only envy them their good taste and their passion.  I, however, fell asleep during the last opera that I attended (Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, a couple of decades ago).

                                                        Stanley Spencer
                                 "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-1919)

To demonstrate the depths of cultural depravity to which I have sunk, I shamefacedly admit that the opening lines of a song that I have been listening to off and on for over 40 years still give me a thrill each time I hear them:  "They're selling postcards of the hanging/They're painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town."  In contrast, the sublimest moments of opera leave me cold.  (An aside which further demonstrates my Philistinism:  when I discover that a poet whose work I admire has written a libretto, my heart sinks like a stone.)

Again, I am solely to blame for this blind spot.  But I fear that it is too late to be remedied.  I have sometimes toyed with the idea of learning ancient Greek in my autumn years.  But, attend another performance of Die Meistersinger?  I'm afraid not.

                            Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

All of this leads in a roundabout way to the following poem by James Reeves.  Opera may not be to my taste, but it may nonetheless be a mirror of Life.

                         Grand Opera

The lovers have poisoned themselves and died singing,
And the crushed peasant father howls in vain.
For his duplicity, lubricity and greed
The unspeakable base count is horribly slain.

After the music, after the applause,
The lights go up, the final curtain drops.
The clerks troop from the house, and some are thinking:
Why is life different when the singing stops?

All that hysteria and those histrionics,
All those coincidences were absurd.
But if there were no relevance to life,
Why were they moved to shudder and applaud?

Though they outlived that passion, it was theirs,
As was the jealousy, the sense of wrong
When some proud jack-in-office trampled them;
Only it did not goad them into song.

The accidents, the gross misunderstandings,
Paternal sorrow, amorous frustration
Have they not suffered?  Was the melodrama
An altogether baseless imitation?

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                      Stanley Spencer, "Mending Cowls, Cookham" (1915)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Four: "Heroes Of The Sub-Plot"

If Life is indeed a drama or comedy in which we are actors, I will hazard a guess that most of us see ourselves as the leading man or the leading lady in the entertainment.  James Simmons's poem "Written, Directed by and Starring . . ." comes to mind.  But what if we aren't the hero or the heroine? And, by the way, who decides?

            Heroes of the Sub-Plot

Look at us, cursed heroes of the sub-plot,
twisting our faces into plaintive masks
over the footlights -- terror, desire and glee.
For we are lost, as usual at this hour,
in a wood near the front of the stage --
cuckolds and clowns and palace functionaries,
rolling our eyes to pass the time for you
with one or two approved cross purposes.
See -- we have put on character make-up
to distract you from the sound of scenery
being shifted behind our backs.  The principals
are waiting in the wings.  Too soon
our leading man will make the winding sign
to end our moment balanced in the light.
We smudge our eye-shadow with our tears.

Hugo Williams, Writing Home (Oxford University Press 1985).

                                   David Tindle, "Mural (Panel A)" (1978)

But, be we hero or heroine (in our own minds), somebody like Keats brings us back to earth:  "Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making'. Then you will find out the use of the world."  The Chinese T'ang Dynasty poets and the Japanese haiku poets possessed this knowledge (via Taoism and Buddhism) several centuries before Keats.  (Which is not to fault Keats: these messages are timeless, but it seems that we have to discover them for ourselves.)

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

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

                                   David Tindle, "Mural (Panel B)" (1978)

For further perspective on this matter, something by Czeslaw Milosz is apt.


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

                                     David Tindle, "Mural (Panel C)" (1978)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Three: "The Prologue Often, And Then No Play"

The theme of this series of posts is the poetic conceit that life is akin to a work of art.  Perhaps the best-known instance of the conceit is the passage from Shakespeare's As You Like It:  "All the world's a stage, /And all the men and women merely players . . ."  Of course, Shakespeare was neither the first nor the last to employ this idea.

At some point in our lives, the thought may occur to us that we are playing (whether by choice or by fate) a role in an unfolding entertainment of some sort.  Whether that entertainment is drama, comedy, tragedy, or farce is the (unanswered) question.

                         Charles Ginner, "Flask Walk, Hampstead" (1922)

               Masque of All Men

In the cold-windy cavern of the Wings
With skeletons of unused sets above them
The actors' painted heads clustered,
Clustered and whispered.  One head whispered,
'This has been my life:  the Prologue often,
And then no Play.  Or when the play has come
The players have departed, the parts being played
By understudies, makeshifts, shifting
The balance, the play, the purpose:
The lines dissolving and the play transposing
Itself into another, an unrehearsed;
So that the prompter, script discarded, idly
Sits in the echoing cavern
Among cold winds beneath the unused sets.'

And others whispered, 'Your life?  Yes, and mine.'
'And mine.'  'And mine.'  'And mine.'
                                                            'And mine.'
                                                                   'And mine.'

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).

Tessimond's description of the life we actors lead seems apt:  there never is a script, is there?  Nor a prompter.  I am reminded of the dream in which you show up to take an exam on the final day of class and suddenly realize that you have not attended any of the lectures and have not read any of the required course materials.  You are on your own.

                                                        Charles Ginner
                               "Flask Walk, Hampstead, at Night" (1933)

Thursday, January 17, 2013


In "Portrait of a Romantic" (which I posted earlier this week), A. S. J. Tessimond describes a Romantic as one who "tries to climb the wall around the world."  This image reminded me of a poem by C. P. Cavafy which is not necessarily about Romanticism, but does involve, well, walls.


With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can't think of anything else:  this fate gnaws my mind --
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

                                  Richard Eurich, "Studio Window" (c. 1964)

Now, before coming too quickly to the conclusion that Cavafy was a paranoiac, we should consider a few things.  First, although he worked as a clerk in the office of the Third Circle of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy's life was not conventional.  He perhaps had good reason to feel isolated or cut-off from the world around him.  But, from what I have read of his life, he seems to have been an equable, mild-mannered person.  Which is not to say, of course, that his life was devoid of passion.

Second, who among us has not had a walled-in sensation from time to time?  For instance, think about the 20th century for a moment.  Doesn't the very thought of that century give you a feeling of claustrophobia?  Or, on a lighter, more contemporary, note, consider two words:  "reality television."  Thousands of years of civilization have brought us to this flowering of human potential.  One might get the sense that the wall-builders are -- without consideration, pity, or shame -- assiduously at work all around us as we speak.  But perhaps I am just being paranoid.

                    Richard Eurich, "Snow Shower over Skyreholme" (1937)

Here is an alternative translation of the poem by Daniel Mendelsohn. Unlike Keeley and Sherrard, Mendelsohn has followed the couplet arrangement and rhyme scheme employed by Cavafy in the Greek original.


Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they've built around me enormous, towering walls.

And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:

because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?

But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn) (Alfred A. Knopf 2009).

                           Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"You Like It Under The Trees In Autumn, Because Everything Is Half Dead"

The line "He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit" in A. S. J. Tessimond's "Portrait of a Romantic" got me to thinking of a poem by Wallace Stevens.  Given his belief that Imagination is the source of a well-lived life, Stevens certainly has a Romantic side.  Although the ostensible subject of the following poem is "metaphor," the Romantic preoccupations with Imagination, transience, and mortality are present as well.

                         William Rothenstein, "Wych Elm in Winter" (1919)

        The Motive for Metaphor

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.

In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon --

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound --
Steel against intimation -- the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

I need to correct myself:  the subject of the poem is not "metaphor"; rather, the subject is "the motive for metaphor."  It is the activity that is of crucial importance in our lives.  In the titles of a few of his poems, Stevens makes the point better than I can.  For instance:  "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination."  Or:  "Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is."  Or: "Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It."  (As I have noted before, simply reading the table of contents or the index of titles of one of Stevens's collections is a delight in itself.)

It all boils down to "desiring the exhilarations of changes."  These changes are wrought by Imagination and Reality (the World outside) engaging in a constant back-and-forth:  "Where you yourself were never quite yourself/And did not want nor have to be."  Each side is empty and cold without the other.  A Romantic notion.

                                Francis Dodd, "Willow in Winter" (c. 1925)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"He Tries To Climb The Wall Around The World"

I suppose that all of us have a Romantic streak in us.  I am not speaking of "romantic" in the Hollywood-Valentine's Day sense.  Rather, I am thinking of the Wordsworth-Keats-Bronte sort of Romanticism that is, according to the OED, characterized by "an emphasis on feeling, individuality, and passion rather than classical form and order."  To wit:  sublime vistas, windy heights, misty vales, vast watery depths, immortality and mortality, love and Love (requited and unrequited, found and lost, fleeting and deathless).

Our tendency toward Romanticism of this sort usually waxes in our teens and twenties, when the World seems invested with a great deal of passion (with passion's attendant ups and downs).  In those years, one is liable to find oneself exclaiming (or sighing) "O, World!" quite often.  After that, Romanticism begins to wane as reality inevitably sets in.  But we never entirely lose it.  Nor should we.  It would be sad if we did.  (Within reason, the Stoic in me says.  Skip the mid-life crises and the "lifestyle" -- horrible word! -- options of the modern age.)

                     John Nash, "The Garden under Snow" (c. 1924-1930)

The following poem by A. S. J. Tessimond describes very well, I think, the Romantic in us all.

                    Portrait of a Romantic

He is in love with the land that is always over
The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never
Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass.

He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit,
The man in the fog, the road without an ending,
Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.

He is well aware that man is always lonely,
Listening for an echo of his cry, crying for the moon,
Making the moon his mirror, weeping in the night.

He often dives in the deep-sea undertow
Of the dark and dreaming mind.  He turns at corners,
Twists on his heel to trap his following shadow.

He is haunted by the face behind the face.
He searches for last frontiers and lost doors.
He tries to climb the wall around the world.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Selection (1958).

                              Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window"

Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Voice Of The Wind In The Night"

At this time of year, the wind often keens in the night.  A cold wind out of the north Pacific, Alaska, and Siberia.  And, occasionally, a warm wind out of the central Pacific, bringing heavy rain.  When they come, these winter winds buffet the windows and rattle the doors.

Last night, as I listened, the first two lines of a poem that I haven't read in decades returned to me:

Towards nightfall when the wind
Tries the eaves and casements . . .

Allen Tate, "Winter Mask," Collected Poems 1919-1976 (1977).

I remembered nothing else of the poem.  Some things remain tucked away in our memory, waiting for the right moment to revisit us, while others seem to vanish for ever.

                         Charles John Holmes, "Farmyard, Winter" (1921)

As I have noted before, Arthur Symons was fond of "grey" and "twilight" (and of "grey twilight," of course).  He was also fond of wind (often accompanied by rain) in the night.

             Wind at Night

The night was full of wind that ran
Like a strong blind distracted man
About the fields in the loud rain;
The night was full of the wind's pain.

I looked into the naked air,
Only the crying wind was there,
In wet invisible torment, tossed
About the darkness like a ghost.

My thought in me cried out and sought
Only, like wind, to fly from thought;
But like my thought the wind could find
Nowhere to hide out of the wind.

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906).

                               Charles John Holmes, "A Warehouse" (1921)

        Night and Wind

The night is light and chill,
Stars are awake in the sky,
There's a cloud over the moon;
Round the house on the hill
The wind creeps with its cry
Between a wail and a croon.

I hear the voice of the wind,
The voice of the wind in the night,
Cry and sob and weep,
As the voice of one that hath sinned
Moaning aloud in its might
In the night when he cannot sleep.

Sleep!  No sleep is about.
What remembering sin
Wakes and watches apart?
The wind wails without,
And my heart is wailing within,
And the wind is the voice of my heart.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (1889).

                              Charles John Holmes, "Scholar Gipsy" (1917)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"A Glimpse Of Immaculate Sand That Awaits Our Footprints"

Louis MacNeice's and Seamus Heaney's like-titled poems "The Strand" reminded me of the closing image of a lovely poem by Michael Longley, who has written many fine poems that are set along the margins of the sea.

                        Bjorn Olinder's Pictures

I have learned about dying by looking at two pictures
Bjorn Olinder needed to look at when he was dying:
A girl whose features are obscured by the fall of her hair
Planting a flower,
                                   and a seascape:  beyond the headland
A glimpse of immaculate sand that awaits our footprints.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).

                                   William Baziotes, "Water Forms" (1961)

Many of Longley's seaside poems are inspired by Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo.  I suspect that the following poem may be set there.


There was light without heat between the stepping stones
And the duach, at every stride the Milky Way.
Her four or five petals hanging from an eyelash,
Venus bloomed like brookweed next to the Pleiades.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (1991).  In a note to his collection Snow Water (Jonathan Cape 2004) Longley writes:  "machair is Irish and Scots Gaelic for a sandy plain found behind dunes and affording some pasturage: duach, the Irish for sandbanks or dunes, means in Mayo the same as machair."

An aside:  the Japanese word for what in English is called "the Milky Way" is amanogawa.  "Ama" means "sky" or "the heavens"; "no" means "of"; "gawa" (i.e., "kawa," which often changes to "gawa" in compound words) means "river."  Thus, two possible translations might be:  "river of the sky" or "river of the heavens."  Beautiful:  a river of stars.

                                    William Baziotes, "Opalescent" (1962)

Regarding the sea, the night sky, and the Pleiades, the following untitled poem by A. E. Housman (which I have previously posted) comes to mind:

The weeping Pleiads wester,
     And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
     Far sighs the rainy breeze:

It sighs from a lost country
     To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
     And I lie down alone.

A. E. Housman, Poem X, More Poems (1936).  Housman composed an alternate version of the poem, which appears in my previous post as well. Both of the poems are based, in part, on a poem by Sappho.

William Baziotes, "Sea Phantoms" (1952)

Monday, January 7, 2013

"The Strand"

On my daily walk, I sometimes visit a lighthouse that is located on a point that juts out into Puget Sound.  The beach is strewn with driftwood -- large grey-white logs in many cases, especially in winter, when the wind and the currents have brought them across the Sound from the west.

Ocean freighters arrive and depart out on the horizon.  I have seen no "quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir."  (John Masefield, "Cargoes.")  Rather, these ships have come from, or are bound for, places such as Shanghai, Qingdao, Yantian, and Ningbo.

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

                           The Strand

White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet,
This mirror of wet sand imputes a lasting mood
To island truancies; my steps repeat

Someone's who now has left such strands for good
Carrying his boots and paddling like a child,
A square black figure whom the horizon understood --

My father.  Who for all his responsibly compiled
Account books of a devout, precise routine
Kept something in him solitary and wild,

So loved the western sea and no tree's green
Fulfilled him like these contours of Slievemore
Menaun and Croaghaun and the bogs between.

Sixty-odd years behind him and twelve before,
Eyeing the flange of steel in the turning belt of brine
It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore

And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections -- and no sign

Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.

Louis MacNeice, Holes in the Sky (1948).

                                                Paul Nash, "Plage" (1928)

MacNeice wrote "The Strand" in 1945.  A half-century later, Seamus Heaney published the following poem.  The players are the same:  a father, a son, and the strand.  But Heaney has distilled things down to three lines. And has perhaps come to a different conclusion.

                      The Strand

The dotted line my father's ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won't wash away.

Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber 1996).

  Maxwell Armfield, "Seven Sisters" (1944)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"There Is A Budding Morrow In Midnight"

We are in the midst of winter.  Still, there are signs of what is to come. Yesterday I saw a magnolia tree full of grey felt buds.  Surprisingly, I also came across a cherry tree with a scattering of small pink blossoms.  Testing the air?  Impatient?  Confused?  Too soon, I fear.  But what do I know?

                      William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), "The Temple Church"

"There Is A Budding Morrow In Midnight"

Wintry boughs against a wintry sky;
        Yet the sky is partly blue
                And the clouds are partly bright: --
Who can tell but sap is mounting high
                Out of sight,
Ready to burst through?

Winter is the mother-nurse of Spring,
        Lovely for her daughter's sake,
                Not unlovely for her own:
For a future buds in everything;
                Grown, or blown,
Or about to break.

Christina Rossetti, Poems (1888).

The source of Rossetti's title is a line from Keats's sonnet "To Homer":
. . . . .
Aye, on the shores of darkness there is light,
     And precipices show untrodden green;
There is a budding morrow in midnight,
     There is a triple sight in blindness keen;
Such seeing hadst thou, as it once befell
To Dian, Queen of Earth, and Heaven, and Hell.

                            William Ratcliffe, "Winter Scene with Houses"

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"The Piers Are Pummelled By The Waves"

The ode by Horace that I discussed in my previous post contains an image of a tempestuous Tyrrhenian Sea in winter.  In Derek Mahon's translation of the ode, the winter is described as one that "flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers."  Louis MacNeice uses similar imagery in his translation:  the winter "on the ramparts of rock is exhausting the battering waves."

Something about the wind-tossed Tyrrhenian waves pounding the shore seemed vaguely familiar.  At my age, these inklings sometimes remain inchoate.  However, if I wait patiently, what I am looking for may arrive unexpectedly.  I eventually remembered the following poem by W. H. Auden.

                                Richard Eurich, "Marine Harvest" (1949)

            The Fall of Rome

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

W. H. Auden, Nones (1951).  Auden wrote the poem in 1947.

I'm afraid that I have no arcane or profound parallels of any sort to draw between Auden and Horace.  I was only thinking of the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea ("mare Tyrrhenum") crashing upon piers in winter.

                       Richard Eurich, "Coast Scene with a Rainbow" (1952)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How To Live, Part Nineteen: The New Year

I am not one for making New Year's resolutions.  But I am willing to listen to advice.  Perhaps the best-known piece of advice on How to Live was given by Horace:  carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.  In The Oxford Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases (1998) the phrase is translated as follows:  "seize the day, trusting as little as possible to the morrow."  Yes, of course:  carpe diem.  We've all heard it before.  Like most well-meaning advice, easier said than done.

The phrase appears in Ode 11 of Book One of Horace's Odes.  As one might expect, the poem has been translated into English numerous times, with varying degrees of fidelity to the original.  The following version is by Derek Mahon.

                              How to Live

Don't waste your time, Leuconoe, living in fear and hope
of the imprevisible future; forget the horoscope.
Accept whatever happens.  Whether the gods allow
us fifty winters more or drop us at this one now
which flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers,
decant your wine.  The days are more fun than the years
which pass us by while we discuss them.  Act with zest
one day at a time, and never mind the rest.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).

          Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1948)

Louis MacNeice also tried his hand at it:

Do not, Leuconoe, seek to inquire what is forbidden, what
End the gods have assigned to you or to me; nor do you meddle with
Astrological numbers.  What shall arise count to your balance if
God marks down to you more winters -- or perhaps this very one is the
Last which now on the rocks wears out the fierce Mediterranean
Sea; but be wise and have wine, wine on the board, prune to a minimum
Long-drawn hopes.  While we chat, envious time threatens to give us the
Slip; so gather the day, never an inch trusting futurity.

E. R. Dodds (editor), Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (Faber and Faber 1966).

                            Osmund Caine, "Washing at No. 25, Kingston"

I have a soft spot for the following version by Sir Thomas Hawkins (from 1625):

Strive not, Leuconoe, to know what end
The gods above to me or thee will send;
Nor with astrologers consult at all,
That thou mayst better know what can befall;
Whether thou liv'st more winters, or thy last
Be this, which Tyrrhen waves 'gainst rocks do cast.
Be wise!  drink free, and in so short a space
Do not protracted hopes of life embrace,
Whilst we are talking, envious time doth slide:
This day's thine own; the next may be denied.

Horace, The Odes, Epodes, Satires, and Epistles, Translated by the Most Eminent English Scholars and Poets (1889).

The Elizabethans, though oftentimes flowery, were pretty good at getting to the heart of the matter in a pithy, lovely fashion when they wanted to.  I am put in mind of, for instance, Robert Devereux's "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert," which I have posted here previously.

There was something about the intrigue and the danger of the time which, I think, tended to concentrate the mind (to borrow from Samuel Johnson in another context).  I am reminded of, say, Walter Raleigh and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, writing poetry in their dungeons as they awaited their beheadings.  (A fate shared by Devereux as well.)

                      Osmund Caine, "The Hoby Effigies, Bisham Church"