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)


Simon said...

I'd just like to say how much I enjoy your blog, which I only recently discovered, and then quite by chance

WAS said...

I love those paintings today, and I share your wistfulness for the "creaking and clacking" of bare trees. Nemerov's poem is interesting - humanizing trees to de-anthropomorphize them. I like the part about "steady as a rock and always trembling" but not so keen on nature's absence of human folly part (a topic well-covered by other nature poets, like Eddie Vedder, who says "rats don't shit where they're not supposed to").

btw, I suspect this is a part of your subtle humor, but Wittgenstein's aphorism is crystal clear compared to Ruskin's.

Anonymous said...

Some ancient mythologies believed in wood nymphs, spirits, usually called dyads of hamadryads, that inhabited trees. Keats, in the fourth stanza, of "Ode To Psyche" mentions the "moss-lain Dryads." Anthony Hecht once wrote that the fourth stanza of Keats's poem is among the beautiful in the language. Any lover of poetry could do worse than to read this poem of Keats's. Perhaps we had been better stewards of this world did we still think the natural world, which we punder with such rapacious avarice and wanton carelessness, laden with spritis, deities we should pay some slight homage to, to whom we could promise a fealty. Pan, wherever he is, pipes, if he pipes at all, the saddest of tunes, all in vain to Moloch's deaf ear.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane 50
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branchèd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster'd trees
Fledge the wild-ridgèd mountains steep by steep; 55
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull'd to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain, 60
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same;
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win, 65
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

Stephen Pentz said...

Simon: thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, it's good to hear from you.

As for the clarity of Ruskin versus Wittgenstein, I'm not certain that I've gotten to the bottom of either statement, but I like the gist of both of them. In defense of Ruskin, the passage that I have quoted comes from a lengthy disquisition on the wonder and beauty of trees. Thus, I may have deprived it of some context and clarity by setting it off by itself.

Thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: your mentioning the fourth stanza of Keats's "Ode to Psyche" is a marvelous coincidence (which you may have known about).

To wit: in the same volume of Modern Painters from which I took the quote from Ruskin, Ruskin includes the following footnote to a long passage about pines: "Keats (as is his way) puts nearly all that may be said of the pine into one verse, though they are only figurative pines of which he is speaking. I have come to that pass of admiration for him now, that I dare not read him, so discontented he makes me with my own work: but others must not leave unread, in considering the influence of trees upon the human soul, that marvelous Ode to Psyche. Here is the piece about pines [Ruskin then quotes the fourth stanza in its entirety]." Modern Painters, Volume 5, Part VI, Chapter IX, Section 9.

What a lovely coincidence that you (and Hecht) should think of the same stanza in a similar connection! And I'm certain that Ruskin would share your feelings about our connection (or lack of it) with the natural world.

Thank you very much.