Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"The Soul's Progress" Revisited

Some might think that Arthur Symons's "The Soul's Progress" (which appeared in my previous post) presents a too-bleak view of our time on earth.  To wit:  "Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist" and so on. But, like most everything else (I'm afraid), it all depends on how you look at it.

For instance, Japanese poets have been writing about Existence for centuries, and they share Symons's view that we enter this world from a mist and depart into a mist.  But, the way they go about it, what sounds like a catalogue of horrors in an English sonnet sounds like a lovely walk in the park in a Japanese poem (filtered through Buddhism, with Taoism in the background).

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window"

     To what
Shall I compare the world?
     It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
     that has rowed away at dawn.

Sami Manzei (8th century) (translated by Edward Cranston), A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup (Stanford University Press 1993).

Like dew that vanishes,
like a phantom that disappears,
or the light cast
     by a flash of lightning --
so should one think of oneself.

Ikkyu (1394-1481) (translated by Steven Carter), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

     A temporary lodging
on this side of the road all
     must go, in the end.

To recover the time he rested,
The traveller hastens on.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen), Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press 1994).

Bertha Ridley Bell
"Interior of a Cottage at Brockhampton" (c. 1950)

"Like the wake vanishing behind a boat that has rowed away at dawn." "Like dew that vanishes . . . or the light cast by a flash of lightning."  "The traveller hastens on."  A far cry from a soul that "staggers out into eternity," isn't it?

For the Japanese poets, this is simply the way that it is, and there is no need to bemoan that fact.  Thus, even as they describe the evanescence and the transience of our life, they do so in words that show their acute awareness of, and appreciation for, the beauty that surrounds us.  I recently quoted this line from Wallace Stevens, and it once again seems apt:  "Death is the mother of beauty, mystical."

Charles Ginner
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, reading your post this morning was an odd experience for me. My sister-in-law lives in Shipley in Sussex and the painting " Through a cottage window Shipley " is almost identical to the view from her home, given ineveitable small changes that occur in the course of the years, the view is almost identical. I have no idea whether the painting was painted from the viewpoint of her cottage window or not. It would be, purely as a matter of curiosity, interesting to know.

John Ashton

Sam Vega said...

Very nice point. For an earlier English example, try

"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant."

Bede: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.

Not as concise, but beautifully Anglo-Saxon.

Also worth remembering that the "Buddhist" angle on what we depart to owes a lot more to culture than to what the Buddha actually said. Some of his accounts of post-mortem rebirth are lengthy and gruesome in the extreme.

E Berris said...

I have been compelled to look up Yeats "The Wheel" 'Through winter-time we call on spring" etc, as I had a mini-collection of memento mori poems years ago, and all your quotations are unfamilair to me but reward reading - do you also 'collect' paintings of views through windows? I follow your blog regulalry - thanks.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: well, that would be quite a coincidence, wouldn't it? I hope that it is so. Ginner apparently painted it between 1930 and 1940 (according to the museum where it is held). Other than that, I don't know any details about the painting. Please let me know if you discover anything further.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing that information.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: thank you very much for that passage: it is lovely! It is a perfect complement to what appears in the post -- these things are timeless and found everywhere, aren't they?

Ah, yes, rebirth and reincarnation. I can do without them. Of course, I may not have a choice in the matter.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: thank you for visiting again, and for your comments.

Thank you very much for the reference to "The Wheel": I had completely forgotten about it. It is perfect in this context, isn't it?

As for "window paintings": yes, I am very fond of them, I don't know why. Have you seen the book Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century? It was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 (in conjunction with the exhibit of the same name). I think that you would like it if you are fond of "window paintings."

Thanks again.