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)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, Thank you for the C Day Lewis piece, an unfamiliar poem to me ; I particularly like the final verse. Both this and the previous De La Mare poem, Night ,remind me a little of Ivor Gurney's" The Dearness of Common Things", and that reminds of another De La Mare poem which I was reading yesterday evening, not related to your theme, simply a wonderful poem" Tarbury Steep".

I agree with you that as we age our capacity for innocent wonder wanes a a little. Perhaps we have just seen too many things , too often, and yet if we walk with our eyes and mind open,not expecting anything very much, we can be astonished. A few days since I was walking along a local street and there beside a fence, among the usual litter of dead leaves and depressingly familiar take-away debris, and despite the cold grew a tiny, lone wild violet,the flower so small and fragile, yet there and living.
These are perhaps the moments of wonder we must cherish. They may be rare, but that's why they matter so very much.

Anonymous said...

Lionel Trilling says Wordsworth's intimations ode is about growing up, the man discovering what the boy cannot, because of the youth's callowness and lack of experience. The man (the poet in adulthood) finds "soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind."

The poet admits he has lost "only . . . one delight" in growing perforce older but he declares that his love for the world, for that symbiosis between his imagination and nature, that delicate admixture, the two working in harmony and in conjunction, has only increased. He has, in fact, "gained" an advantage by growing older.

If we may inject Blake here, we might posit that Wordsworth's youth sees the world "with his eyes" whereas Wordsworth's mature mind sees "though his eyes." (Think, If you will, of Steves's lambent imagination playing over the physical world to create art or a heightened sense of reality.)

Anyone interested in Wordsworth's belief that a close examination of human suffering can bring "the philosophic mind" might want to read his long narrative poem "The Ruined Cottage." In the poem the Wordsworthian hero, the old philosopher (his name is Armytage), vouchsafes we should acknowledge sorrow but we should give it no more than its due (a blow against sentimentality?)when he says to one weeping at the travail life leaves in its wake:

My friend, enough to suffering have you given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more:
Be wise and cheerful, and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.

Sam Vega said...

The Day Lewis poem is beautiful - a little gem in itself. It contains an important psychological truth. Such moments arise more frequently when we are recovering from sickness. There is a wonderful example in Walter De La Mare's short story "The Wharf", and I'm sure there are lots more to be found in poetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you very much for mentioning "Tarbury Steep": I hadn't read it before, but now I have. It is lovely. It reminds me of the thoughts that he expresses in his "All That's Past."

I agree with you that Gurney's "The Dearness of Common Things" fits well here. As does another poem by Gurney (one of my favorites by him): "I believe in the increasing of life whatever/Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . ." (It is sometimes given the title "The Escape.")

Your thoughts about encountering unexpected small beauties parallel Gurney's thoughts in both poems. One of the things that I value most about poetry is its ability to increase our attentiveness.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for your thoughts on Wordsworth. I like the distinction that you make between seeing "with" the eyes versus seeing "through" the eyes with a mature mind. And the connection that you make to Stevens and the latter type of seeing is a fine one.

The subject of Wordsworth and human suffering is a large and complicated one, isn't it? I am thinking, for instance, of all of the poems that he wrote about beggars and/or elderly men on the road. Coincidentally, I recently read "Animal Tranquillity and Decay," which features one of his old men on the road. It resonates with the passage that you cite from "The Ruined Cottage."

Again, I greatly appreciate your thought-provoking observations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: it's good to hear from you again. That's a good point: illness tends to make us appreciate the commonplace more than we usually might.

I will track down "The Wharf": I have a couple of collections of de la Mare's short stories, but I haven't read that story. I appreciate the recommendation.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

I am currently reading Ian McEwan's latest novel "Sweet Tooth," and this morning I found a reference to Edward Thomas's poem "Adlestrop." (on page 168) A man and woman are at a museum. He, a writer, mentions the poem to her, but she is not familiar with it. They then visit a used book store where the man finds an old copy of Thomas's poems. He finds "Adlestrop," asks the woman, no great reader or lover of poetry, to read it. All she can find to say is that the poem is lovely. The man mentions that the beauty and the serenity of the poem contrast with the horror and brutality of war. The woman doesn't understand, saying that war in not mentioned in the poem. Once someone knows Thomas's fate, what he saw and heard and suffered on the battlefield and his subsequent death there, the poem transcends the quiet and ripe loveliness, Keatsian perhaps, to a poignant sublimity.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: "Adlestrop" could almost be titled "A Privileged Moment" as well, couldn't it? Few poems equal it as a meditation on a moment in time. Thank you for mentioning that it makes an appearance in McEwan's novel: I'm not much of a fiction reader, so I would have missed it.

Yes, the poetry of Thomas (and Owen and Rosenberg and Hulme and all of the others who died in the war) does take on an added poignancy because of their fates, doesn't it? But there is something about the stillness, peacefulness, and beauty of "Adlestrop" that adds another layer of sadness.

Thank you very much for the thoughts.