Sunday, August 25, 2013

"In Dispraise Of The Moon"

One usually expects poets to praise the moon, to compose paeans to its mystery and its magic, and to use it to evoke gods and goddesses and spirits.  Thus, the following poems may come as a surprise.  On the other hand, by raising vehement objections to the moon, perhaps the poets have implicitly acknowledged its hold on us.

In any case, how we see the moon depends on our mood, doesn't it?  For instance, who, at some point in their life, hasn't found a sunny, bright blue day to be oppressive and depressing?  We fashion our own gods and goddesses and spirits out of what we are given to work with, don't we?

Frank Ormond (1897-1988), "Moonrise, Stanford Dingley"

             In Dispraise of the Moon

I would not be the Moon, the sickly thing,
To summon owls and bats upon the wing;
For when the noble Sun is gone away,
She turns his night into a pallid day.

She hath no air, no radiance of her own,
That world unmusical of earth and stone.
She wakes her dim, uncoloured, voiceless hosts,
Ghost of the Sun, herself the sun of ghosts.

The mortal eyes that gaze too long on her
Of Reason's piercing ray defrauded are.
Light in itself doth feed the living brain;
That light, reflected, but makes darkness plain.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (edited by Theresa Whistler) (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

I particularly like "herself the sun of ghosts" (line 8) and "That light, reflected, but makes darkness plain" (line 12).  Both phrases are a nice combination of descriptive accuracy and emotional resonance.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, "View of Heath Street by Night" (1882)

Given Thomas Hardy's productivity, one could compile a substantial anthology of poems by him that feature the moon and moonlight.  As one might expect, the moon and a graveyard (with the occasional conversing ghost) is a not uncommon setting.  However, in the following poem, gravestones make only a cameo appearance.

            Shut Out That Moon

Close up the casement, draw the blind,
     Shut out that stealing moon,
She wears too much the guise she wore
     Before our lutes were strewn
With years-deep dust, and names we read
     On a white stone were hewn.

Step not forth on the dew-dashed lawn
     To view the Lady's Chair,
Immense Orion's glittering form,
     The Less and Greater Bear:
Stay in; to such sights we were drawn
     When faded ones were fair.

Brush not the bough for midnight scents
     That come forth lingeringly,
And wake the same sweet sentiments
     They breathed to you and me
When living seemed a laugh, and love
     All it was said to be.

Within the common lamp-lit room
     Prison my eyes and thought;
Let dingy details crudely loom,
     Mechanic speech be wrought:
Too fragrant was Life's early bloom,
     Too tart the fruit it brought!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks, and Other Verses (1909).

Joseph Wright of Derby
"Moonlight with a Lighthouse, Coast of Tuscany" (1789)

Who better than Philip Larkin to bring this line of rumination to a fitting close?

                      Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock:  wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate --
Lozenge of love!  Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory!  Immensements!  No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Yes, I know:  Whew!  For anyone who is not fond of Larkin, this sort of thing confirms their position.  For those of us who are fond of Larkin, this sort of thing likewise confirms our position.  I confess that I am not fond of the first line, but how can you not love a poet who takes his title from the first line of an Elizabethan sonnet by Philip Sidney ("With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!") and then brings us into Mr Bleaney's barren, moon-washed room in the late 20th century?

Augustus Leopold Egg, "Past and Present" (1858)

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