Saturday, March 30, 2013

"His Gains In Heaven Are What They Are"

I'd like to stay with the themes of "the lovely in life is the familiar" (Walter de la Mare) and "the seeing of small trifles . . . ./Real, beautiful, is good" (Ivor Gurney) for a moment longer.  As one might expect, Robert Frost takes an equivocal, and sly, view of such things in the following poem.

Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958), "The Road to the Hills"

               Bond and Free

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about --
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Robert Frost, Mountain Interval (1916).

Harry Epworth Allen, "Summer" (1940)

The question immediately arises:  where do you stand on this Love versus Thought business?

I suspect that Frost comes down on the side of Love, but one can never be sure when it comes to Frost.  On the one hand, he titles the poem "Bond and Free," rather than "Bond or Free," so perhaps his view is that we are fated to continually move back and forth between Love and Thought.  It is not a matter of either/or.

On the other hand, the final stanza seems to come down on the side of Love:  "His gains in heaven are what they are" seems to suggest that the gains don't amount to much.  "Simply staying" seems to be the way to go. Or so "some say."  ("Some say" is a characteristic Frostian way of hedging: "Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice.")

One commentator believes that a clue may lie in Frost's placing "Bond and Free" immediately prior to "Birches" in Mountain Interval, citing these lines in "Birches" as evidence that Frost opts for Love:  "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better."  John Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, 1912-1915 (Grove Press 1988), page 250.

But, then again, the final lines of "Birches" suggest the back and forth of "Bond and Free":

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Robert Frost, Ibid (italics in original).

Yes, of course:  "Toward heaven."  Which fits quite well with:  "His gains in heaven are what they are."  (Whatever that means!)  Typical Frost: equivocal and sly.

Harry Epworth Allen, "A Derbyshire Farmstead"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Four-Line Poems, Part Six: "Of Humblest Friends, Bright Creature! Scorn Not One"

I would not describe William Wordsworth as a succinct poet.  He usually needs space to make his point.  However, there are exceptions.  For instance, there are the eight beautiful lines of "A slumber did my spirit seal."  And there is the following four-line poem, which came to mind in connection with my recent posts about the loveliness of familiar things.

                         To a Child
               Written in Her Album

Small service is true service while it lasts:
Of humblest Friends, bright Creature! scorn not one:
The Daisy, by the shadow that it casts,
Protects the lingering dew-drop from the Sun.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1845).

In commenting on the poem, Wordsworth stated:  "This quatrain was extempore on observing this image, as I had often done, on the lawn of Rydal Mount."

Stanley Spencer, "Lilac and Clematis at Englefield" (1954)

Wordsworth's poem is instructive:  we all ought to be on the look-out for dew-drops in the shadows of daisies.  Ivor Gurney offers similar advice.

                         The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Trefoil . . . . hedge sparrow . . . the stars on the edge of night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). The ellipses in lines 2 and 9, and between lines 8 and 9, are in the original.

It is difficult to be as attentive to the world around us as William Wordsworth and Ivor Gurney were.  But Gurney is right:  we must be careful not to find ourselves "under ingratitude's weight," lest we miss a great deal. Trefoil.  Hedge sparrow.  The stars on the edge of night.

Stanley Spencer, "Landscape, Cookham Dean" (c. 1939)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"A Privileged Moment"

Walter de la Mare's "Night," which appeared in my previous post, closes with these lines:  "The lovely in life is the familiar,/And only the lovelier for continuing strange."  The lines bring to mind the following poem by C. Day Lewis, which explores similar territory.

Hubert Wellington, "The Lawyer's House, Walton, Staffordshire" (1915)

                A Privileged Moment

Released from hospital, only half alive still,
Cautiously feeling the way back into himself,
Propped up in bed like a guy, he presently ventured
A glance at the ornaments on his mantelshelf.

White, Wedgwood blue, dark lilac coloured or ruby --
Things, you could say, which had known their place and price,
Gleamed out at him with the urgency of angels
Eager for him to see through their disguise.

Slowly he turned his head.  By gust-flung snatches
A shower announced itself on the windowpane:
He saw unquestioning, not even astonished,
Handfuls of diamonds sprung from a dazzling chain.

Gently at last the angels settled back now
Into mere ornaments, the unearthly sheen
And spill of diamond into familiar raindrops.
It was enough.  He'd seen what he had seen.

C. Day Lewis, The Whispering Roots (1970).

Hubert Wellington, "Summer Day, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Lately I have had Wordsworth on the brain, and the thought of the luminosity of familiar things leads back to "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," which begins:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
                To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

In the Ode, Wordsworth laments the disappearance of "the glory and the freshness" as we age.  The loss is inevitable, of course:  like the puppy who chases the wind-blown leaf, our capacity for innocent wonder wanes.  But, as "Night" and "A Privileged Moment" suggest, something of the capacity always remains.  The Ode closes with these lines:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Hubert Wellington, "Overhanging Tree, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Four-Line Poems, Part Five: "The Lovely In Life Is The Familiar"

I try my best to avoid the news of the world.  But this past week the word "Cyprus" has been insinuating itself into my consciousness.  It seems that something is happening there which ought to concern me.

I have never been to Cyprus.  I'm certain that it is a lovely land, and that the Cypriots are lovely people.  There it sits, a sun-bathed jewel in the blue Mediterranean, just offshore from the fabled lands that Herodotus wrote of long ago:  Phoenicia, Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia.

However, I confess that I cannot muster any concern for the liquidity of Cyprus.  For as long as I can remember (five-odd decades), I've been hearing that the world is on the verge of economic calamity.  But, as far as I can tell, economic history boils down to this:  "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye."

I know next to nothing about how to live.  I cannot claim to have gained any wisdom during my time on Earth.  But I have a sense that life is not as complicated as we make it out to be.

Roland Vivian Pitchforth, "Cottage, Bainbridge" (1928)


That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (1938).

Roland Vivian Pitchforth, "Hebden, Yorkshire"

Of course, our appreciation of the lovely familiars in life may be enhanced if we bear certain things in mind.


          'Waiting to . . .'
          'Who is?'
          'We are . . .
     Was that the night-owl's cry?'
'I heard not.  But see!  the evening star;
And listen! -- the ocean's solacing sigh.'
'You mean the surf at the harbour bar?'
          'What did you say?'
          'Oh, "waiting".'
          '"Waiting? " --
          Waiting what for?'
               'To die.'

Walter de la Mare, Ibid.

The reference to the sound of "the surf at the harbour bar" in line 7 brings to mind two other poems that have death as their subject:  Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" ("may there be no moaning of the bar") and Charles Kingsley's "The Three Fishers" ("though the harbour bar be moaning").

Roland Vivian Pitchforth, "Bainbridge" (1928)

Friday, March 22, 2013

"Stepping Westward"

In my previous post, I mentioned Philip Larkin's self-mocking quip about himself:  "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."  This got me to thinking, not about deprivation, but about the poetry of William Wordsworth.

In August and September of 1803, Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge went on a tour of Scotland.  Dorothy Wordsworth's journal of the tour contains this entry for September 11 (Coleridge had set off on his own by this point):

The sun had been set for some time, when, being within a quarter of a mile of the ferryman's hut, our path having led us close to the shore of the calm lake, we met two neatly dressed women, without hats, who had probably been taking their Sunday evening's walk.  One of them said to us in a friendly, soft tone of voice, "What! you are stepping westward?"  I cannot describe how affecting this simple expression was in that remote place, with the western sky in front, yet glowing with the departed sun.  William wrote the following poem long after, in remembrance of his feelings and mine.

William Knight (editor), Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Volume II (1897), page 105.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)

               Stepping Westward

"What, you are stepping westward?" -- "Yea."
-- 'Twould be a wildish destiny,
If we, who thus together roam
In a strange Land, and far from home,
Were in this place the guests of Chance:
Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

The dewy ground was dark and cold;
Behind, all gloomy to behold;
And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny:
I liked the greeting; 'twas a sound
Of something without place or bound;
And seemed to give me spiritual right
To travel through that region bright.

The voice was soft, and she who spake
Was walking by her native lake:
The salutation had to me
The very sound of courtesy:
Its power was felt; and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing Sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way.

William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) (italics in original).

Wordsworth prefaced the poem with an introduction that parallels Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entry:

While my Fellow-traveller and I were walking by the side of Loch Ketterine, one fine evening after sunset, in our road to a Hut where, in the course of our Tour, we had been hospitably entertained some weeks before, we met, in one of the loneliest parts of that solitary region, two well-dressed Women, one of whom said to us, by way of greeting, "What, you are stepping westward?"

Ibid, Volume II, page 14.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

A poem like "Stepping Westward" reminds us how revolutionary Wordsworth's poetry was in its day, even though it seems very traditional to us now.  The poem is almost conversational, which is what Wordsworth was after: "the real language of men," as he described it in his 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads.  The "poetic diction" that he hoped to "avoid" is nearly absent.

Apart from a few archaisms, I can hear Edward Thomas in "Stepping Westward."  For example:  "In a strange Land, and far from home."  Or: "And stepping westward seemed to be/A kind of heavenly destiny."  And this:  "I liked the greeting; 'twas a sound/Of something without place or bound."  (Robert Frost can be heard in these lines as well, which is no surprise.)  The Thomas echo may also be traceable to Thomas's penchant for writing poems about encountering friendly strangers while walking in the countryside.

I think that Thomas's poetry in many ways brings Wordsworth's best intentions into being.  The last six lines sound like pure Thomas:

                   . . . and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing Sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Castle in Scotland"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Spring, Of All Seasons Most Gratuitous"

One might expect a poem about spring by Philip Larkin to perhaps be a bit mordant.  Perhaps.  After all, one of Larkin's favorite quips about himself was:  "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." Interview with The Observer (1979), in Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1982), page 47. However, bear in mind (as I have noted before) that Larkin was wont to play up his alleged dourness for literary critics and journalists in order to throw them off track.

But we who love Larkin's poetry find his mordancy cheering.  (Of course, this may be due to the fact that we are ourselves mordant.)  Unless he is writing about hospitals or nursing homes or ambulances, I usually finish any poem of his with a smile on my face.  This is either because (1) the poem is lovely, or (2) it tells a marvelous truth about how we live.  Actually, in most cases, both (1) and (2) are true of any poem written by Larkin.

Duncan Grant, "The Doorway" (1929)


Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth's most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press 1955).

Larkin wrote his sonnet in May of 1950:  a happy-go-lucky (but "pursed-up") youth of 27.  How can you not love someone who describes himself as "an indigestible sterility"?  (A nice line of pentameter, that.)

Duncan Grant, "Garden Path in Spring" (1944)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Winter Into Spring, Part Six: "Now First Known"

In addition to their intrinsic beauty, the bare trees of late winter offer an opportunity for the discovery of birds' nests.  This thought brings to mind Edward Thomas, who was a great searcher for, and lover of, nests.

In a marvelous coincidence, Thomas met Paul Nash in the spring of 1916 at Hare Hall Camp, where Thomas was serving as a map-reading instructor. On May 21, he wrote to Robert Frost:  "I was with a young artist named Paul Nash who has just joined us as a map reader.  He is a change from the 2 schoolmasters I see most of. . . . He is wonderful at finding birds' nests." Edward Thomas, Selected Letters (edited by R. George Thomas) (Oxford University Press 1995), page 126.

It is lovely (and poignant) to think of Thomas and Nash going for walks together in the countryside during their time off, discovering nests.

Paul Nash, "The Orchard" (c. 1914)

                         Birds' Nests

The summer nests uncovered by autumn wind,
Some torn, others dislodged, all dark,
Everyone sees them:  low or high in tree,
Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark.

Since there's no need of eyes to see them with
I cannot help a little shame
That I missed most, even at eye's level, till
The leaves blew off and made the seeing no game.

'Tis a light pang.  I like to see the nests
Still in their places, now first known,
At home and by far roads.  Boys knew them not,
Whatever jays and squirrels may have done.

And most I like the winter nest deep-hid
That leaves and berries fell into:
Once a dormouse dined there on hazel-nuts,
And grass and goose-grass seeds found soil and grew.

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

Paul Nash, "Oxenbridge Pond" (1927-1928)

W. H. Davies and Edward Thomas were friends.  Thomas supported Davies financially when he was impoverished, even though Thomas and his family were themselves always struggling to make ends meet.

               Killed in Action
             (Edward Thomas)

Happy the man whose home is still
     In Nature's green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
     That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
     Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
     Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
     War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
     The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

W. H. Davies, Forty New Poems (1918).

Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1919-1922)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Winter Into Spring, Part Five: Trees

In a recent post, I noted that, with the coming of spring, I would miss the bare trees of winter.  This feeling returned to me yesterday as I walked beside a long row of empty trees that were creaking and clacking in the wind.  I looked up into the branches -- blue sky overhead -- and, as we all have done, marveled at the beautiful intricacy that is visible only after the leaves have gone.

There is, no doubt, a scientific explanation for this intricacy.  There always is, isn't there?  However, I prefer Ludwig Wittgenstein:  "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists."  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness), Proposition 6.44.

Or, less gnomically, John Ruskin:  "If human life be cast among trees at all, the love borne to them is a sure test of its purity."  Modern Painters, Volume V (1860), Chapter 1, Section 4.

David Chatterton, "Devon Scene" (1942)


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word --
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also -- though there has never been
A critical tree -- about the nature of things.

Howard Nemerov, Mirrors and Windows (1958).

"Poems or people are rarely so lovely" (line 14) is an allusion to the opening lines of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees":  "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

Francis Dodd, "Spring in the Suburbs" (1925)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"When March Blows"

Ivor Gurney was extremely sensitive to changes in the world around him, be it the weather or the seasons.  Of course, one could argue that any "nature poet" (e.g., Edward Thomas, Andrew Young, John Clare, William Wordsworth) necessarily possesses such a sensitivity.  But in Gurney this sensitivity was particularly acute.

As I have noted before, I am reluctant to attribute Gurney's qualities as a poet to his sometimes precarious mental condition.  It would be unfair to him to suggest that his sensitivity was a product of that condition.  At the risk of sounding romantic, I think that Gurney can be likened to Vincent van Gogh:  the sensuous presence of the world -- everything in it -- was so deeply felt by both of them that they were constantly at risk of being overwhelmed (both physically and mentally).  It would be a disservice to them to describe their sensitivity as a pathology.  Perhaps we are the ones who need to catch up with them.

Enslin Du Plessis, "Cotswold Landscape" (1942)

                        When March Blows

When March blows, and Monday's linen is shown
On the goose berry bushes, and the worried washer alone
Fights at the soaked stuff, meres and the rutted pools
Mirror the wool-pack clouds, and shine clearer than jewels

And the children throw stones in them, spoil mirrors and clouds
The worry of washing over; the worry of foods,
Brings tea-time; March quietens as the trouble dies.
The washing is brought in under wind-swept clear skies.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

John Singer Sargent, "La Biancheria" (1910)

The subject of the washing drying in the wind brings to mind a lovely poem by Andrew Young.  The poem has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting.

           The Shepherd's Hut

The smear of blue peat smoke
That staggered on the wind and broke,
The only sign of life,
Where was the shepherd's wife,
Who left those flapping clothes to dry,
Taking no thought for her family?
For, as they bellied out
And limbs took shape and waved about,
I thought, She little knows
That ghosts are trying on her children's clothes.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Four-Line Poems, Part Four: Doves And Memory

In my previous post in this series, I blithely claimed that the essence of the experience of love (found and/or lost) could be captured in a four-line poem.  (As if I would know what love is!)  I offered as an example F. T. Prince's "The Wind in the Tree."  The following poem by Patrick MacDonogh is another example of what I am trying to get at.

Arthur Henry Andrews (1906-1966), "Montmartre, Paris"


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

The poem says something about our lives and our memories that goes beyond the bittersweet pang of vanished love.  Out of the hundreds of thousands of minutes that we have lived, the few moments that stay with us are often of a dream-like clarity.  In this clarity, certain emotion-freighted sensory details remain forever unchanged.  And, for an instant -- whether we like it or not -- it can all come rushing back.

Arthur Henry Andrews, "Rome"

MacDonogh's poem brings to mind the following poem by Norman MacCaig.  I'm afraid that I cannot come up with any clever connection between the two.  I was simply thinking of doves and memory.


Over the turbulence of the world
flies the bird that stands for memory.
No bird flies faster than this one,
dearer to me
than the dove was to Noah -- though it brings back
sometimes an olive branch, sometimes
a thorny twig without blossoms.

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

Arthur Henry Andrews, "A Farmhouse in Devon"

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The Motion Of The Earth"

Yesterday was one of those gentle-breeze, angled-sunlight, blue-sky days which confirm that Spring is no longer a mere promise.  The world seems wide open and wide awake on such days.  But there is also a scent of close earthiness in the air:  the dirt at our feet is burgeoning as well.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1934)

                 The Motion of the Earth

A day with sky so wide,
So stripped of cloud, so scrubbed, so vacuumed free
Of dust, that you can see
The earth-line as a curve, can watch the blue
Wrap over the edge, looping round and under,
Making you wonder
Whether the dark has anywhere left to hide.
But the world is slipping away; the polished sky
Gives nothing to grip on; clicked from the knuckle
The marble rolls along the gutter of time --
Earth, star and galaxy
Shifting their place in space.
Noon, sunset, clouds, the equably varying weather,
The diffused light, the illusion of blue,
Conceal each hour a different constellation.
All things are new
Over the sun, but we,
Our eyes on our shoes, go staring
At the asphalt, the gravel, the grass at the roadside, the door-
step, the doodles of snails, the crochet of mortar and lime,
Seeking the seeming familiar, though every stride
Takes us a thousand miles from where we were before.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium (1954).

The closing lines make the poem a good companion piece to Louis Simpson's "The Foggy Lane," which appeared in my previous post.  To wit: while we should always keep an eye to the ground (Simpson), we mustn't forget that the earth is speeding away beneath our feet (Nicholson).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Friday, March 8, 2013

How To Live, Part Twenty: "The Foggy Lane"

There is something to be said for winnowing, for paring down.  The culture around us encourages short attention spans and hyperactive grasping after chimeras.  Don't get me wrong:  I am in no position to judge.  I don't have the strength of character to be an anchorite.  I am easily seduced by chimeras.  "Garlic and sapphires in the mud/Clot the bedded axle-tree." "Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule."  Or something like that.

But you have to start somewhere.  Thus -- speaking of mud -- it is always a good idea to keep an eye to the ground.  For instance, this week I saw quite a few crocuses (white, yellow, pale purple, deep purple), as well as the first daffodils.

George Charlton, "Well Walk from New End Square" (1930)

          The Foggy Lane

The houses seem to be floating
in the fog, like lights at sea.

Last summer I came here with a man
who spoke of the ancient Scottish poets --
how they would lie blindfolded,
with a stone placed on the belly,
and so compose their panegyrics . . .
while we, being comfortable, find nothing to praise.

Then I came here with a radical
who said that everything is corrupt;
he wanted to live in a pure world.

And a man from an insurance company
who said that I needed "more protection."

Walking in the foggy lane
I try to keep my attention fixed
on the uneven, muddy surface . . .
the pools made by the rain,
and wheel ruts, and wet leaves,
and the rustling of small animals.

Louis Simpson, Adventures of the Letter I (1971).

What Simpson says is nothing more nor less than what the Chinese T'ang Dynasty poets and the Japanese haiku poets have been saying for centuries:  pay attention.   Pay loving attention.

     The spring day closes,
     Where there is water.

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 38.

Herbert Victor Tempest (1913-2003), "View of Leicester Museum"

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rain, Part One: "The Ghost Of Old Unhappiness That Cannot Rest"

If you live in this part of the world long enough, you begin to develop an appreciation for the varieties of rain:  fine, yet insistent, mist; day-long and night-long windless grey curtains; late-afternoon squalls of white sheets sweeping across Puget Sound.

In time, you realize that you have discarded your umbrellas in favor of hats and hooded rain-jackets.  And then, in the middle of the night, after many years, you discover that the sound of rain pattering on the window-panes has long been a source of reassurance.

Peter Graham, "A Spate in the Highlands" (1866)

The following poem is from a series that L. A. G. Strong wrote while living on the coast of western Scotland.


It is the ghost
Of old unhappiness
That cannot rest,
Though it has long forgotten
Why it sighs.

Lost joy, lost grief --
A tremor on the sea,
A thin, sad rain
Drifting unhappily
To whisper on the shore.

Too soft an air, too sad
For human hearts.
Too soft, too chill a sound
For human ears.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (1930).

The poem is a bit melancholy, but there are times when the unremitting mists and showers -- especially in the short, dark days of winter -- can awaken the feelings he speaks of.

Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)

Monday, March 4, 2013

"His Soul Is With The Saints, I Trust"

Last week, after posting poems by John Masefield and G. K. Chesterton about the leafy fate of two dead knights, I remembered that Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed a poem on the same subject.  After writing the poem, he recited it to a friend, who later repeated it to Walter Scott.  Unbeknownst to Coleridge, Scott used a slightly different version of the final three lines in Ivanhoe, which was published in 1819.  The poem was not published under Coleridge's name until 1834.

Eileen Aldridge, "The Downs near Brighton, East Sussex" (1962)

               The Knight's Tomb

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O'Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be? --
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone, -- and the birch in its stead is grown. --
The Knight's bones are dust,
And his good sword rust; --
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

Ernest Hartley Coleridge (editor), The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford University Press 1912).

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who wrote the following untitled poem, was a knight.  In the last two lines, he hauntingly anticipates the poems by Coleridge, Masefield, and Chesterton.

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
     In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
     Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
     Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
     And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1925).

I say "hauntingly anticipates" for the following reason:  Devereux was beheaded in February of 1601 for alleged treason against Elizabeth I.

Dane Maw, "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Four-Line Poems, Part Three: "The Wind In The Tree"

Tens of thousands of poems have been written about love:  found love, lost love, requited love, unrequited love -- love in all of its permutations and guises.  The lovers have aired their emotions in sonnets, canzoni, odes, and other traditional poetic forms, often going to great lengths to articulate that which may be ultimately inexpressible.

However, I respectfully suggest that it may be possible to capture love (momentarily and evanescently) in a four-line poem.

Stanley Spencer, "The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham" (1936)

               The Wind in the Tree

She has decided that she no longer loves me.
There is nothing to be done.  I long ago
As a child thought the tree sighed 'Do I know
Whether my motion makes the wind that moves me?'

F. T. Prince, Poems (1938).

Stanley Spencer
"Englefield House, Cookham" (1951)

The following is my humble contribution to the genre of the four-line lost love poem.

     The Land with Wind in the Leaves

Distance cannot remove me from that place.
I stand half a world away and here it is:
A green sway and roar -- blue, vast, open
And refusing always to let me depart.

     Yorkshire 1987 -- Tokyo 1992

sip (Tokyo/Seattle 1992).

I wish to strongly emphasize:  it does not, of course, hold a candle to "The Wind in the Tree."  But, to borrow from Louis MacNeice ("Star-gazer"):  "To me if to no one else the [subject] is of some interest."  I wrote the poem before I encountered "The Wind in the Tree."

And that's all I have to say about that.

Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)