Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Earth Never Grieves"

Today was -- I'm afraid there is no other way to put it -- A Glorious Autumn Day.  Not a cloud in the sky.  The barest wisp of a wind.  The trees are half-empty, save for the Japanese maples, which are at their bright red brilliant peak.  On my afternoon walk, the only sounds were the cluck and chirp of birds in the distance and the rustle and crackle of leaves underfoot.

All seemed still and unchangeable.  I was doing my best to keep my mind empty, in deference to the World.  But some lines by Wallace Stevens appeared:  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over. . . . He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest/In a permanent realization." But, of course, that is not in the cards.  There shall be no walking beside the river, "under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast."  For which we should be thankful.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Feathers and Hyacinth Heads" (1962)

Upon returning, the following poem by Thomas Hardy came to mind.  It has appeared here before, but, as I am wont to say of poems that I like:  it bears revisiting.

  Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

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

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Dead Leaves" (1963)

On a first reading, the following poem by C. H. Sisson is not as easily accessible as Hardy's poem.  However, it is worth the effort to puzzle it out.


Leaves are plentiful on the ground, under the feet,
There cannot be too many, they lie below;
They rot, they blow about before they are rotted.
Were they ever affixed to trees?  I do not know.

The great connection is from the leaf to the root,
From branch, from tendril, to the low place
Below the burial ground, below the hope of the foot,
The hand stretched out, or the hidden face.

On all occasions, or most, remember this:
Then turn on yourself like a small whirlwind of leaves.

C. H. Sisson, Exactions (Carcanet 1980).

The two poems say roughly the same thing, don't they?  The final two lines are particularly lovely.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Dead Leaves and Birds' Eggs" (1963)

                         Under Trees

Yellow tunnels under the trees, long avenues
Long as the whole of time:
A single aimless man
Carries a black garden broom.
He is too far to hear him
Wading through the leaves, down autumn
Tunnels, under yellow leaves, long avenues.

Geoffrey Grigson, Collected Poems: 1924-1962 (1963).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Leaves" (1941-1942)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Divisions And Distances

Estrangement from a loved one (or from a once-loved one) is the theme of a large number of Thomas Hardy's poems.  Hardy's most significant estrangement was from Emma, his first wife.  Upon her death, the estrangement was converted into the sorrow and regret of Hardy's "Poems of 1912-13," his finest sustained poetic achievement.  But there are all sorts of separations and distances in his poetry.

"Neutral Tones," which appeared in my previous post, is an instance of the romantic estrangement of a young man.  Despite the direness of the scene (e.g., "a few leaves lay on the starving sod;/-- They had fallen from an ash, and were gray") one gets the sense that there is a bit of youthful self-dramatization at work.  In contrast, Hardy's later poems of estrangement tend to be less romanticized.

                  The Division

Rain on the windows, creaking doors,
        With blasts that besom the green,
And I am here, and you are there,
        And a hundred miles between!

O were it but the weather, Dear,
        O were it but the miles
That summed up all our severance,
        There might be room for smiles.

But that thwart thing betwixt us twain,
        Which nothing cleaves or clears,
Is more than distance, Dear, or rain,
        And longer than the years!

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

Line 9 is remarkable: its eight clotted syllables embody "the division" and the distance between the couple.  "But that thwart thing betwixt us twain." (Try repeating that quickly five times.)  "Thwart" in the sense of "adverse, unfavourable, untoward, unpropitious; especially applied (with mixture of literal sense) to a wind or current:  cross."  OED.  Note the contrast between the first four syllables ("but that thwart thing") and the last four syllables ("betwixt us twain").  In working our way through the line, we enact the difficulty at hand.

Felicity Charlton (1913-2009), "Night and Day"

The theme of distance -- both physical and emotional -- in "The Division" is reminiscent of the following untitled poem by Mary Coleridge.

We never said farewell, nor even looked
     Our last upon each other, for no sign
Was made when we the linked chain unhooked
     And broke the level line.

And here we dwell together, side by side,
     Our places fixed for life upon the chart.
Two islands that the roaring seas divide
     Are not more far apart.

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

The image of the final two lines is lovely -- searing, but lovely.

Felicity Charlton, "Porthkerry, View of the City" (c. 1990)

In contrast (and to show that Hardy did not have an unremittingly dour view of the possibility of love and companionship), the following poem is worth considering.  Now, I wouldn't exactly call it a cheery poem, but I would say that it holds out hope.  A Hardyesque hope, granted.  But hope.

   The Farm-Woman's Winter

If seasons all were summers,
     And leaves would never fall,
And hopping casement-comers
     Were foodless not at all,
And fragile folk might be here
     That white winds bid depart;
Then one I used to see here
     Would warm my wasted heart!

One frail, who, bravely tilling
     Long hours in gripping gusts,
Was mastered by their chilling,
     And now his ploughshare rusts.
So savage winter catches
     The breath of limber things,
And what I love he snatches,
     And what I love not, brings.

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

"White winds" (line 6) is very nice.

Felicity Charlton, "Lost People" (1992)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"I Am Your Old Intentions She Said And All Your Old Intentions Are Over"

W. B. Yeats's "Ephemera," which I posted last week, goes quite well with the following poem by Thomas Hardy.  Although the poem was first published in 1899 (in Hardy's first collection of verse), it was written much earlier in Hardy's life.  He appended "1867" to it when it was published. Thus, the poem either was based upon an incident that occurred in 1867 or was written in that year, likely the latter.  Richard Purdy, Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study (1954), page 98; Dennis Taylor, "The Chronology of Hardy's Poetry," Victorian Poetry, Volume 37, Number 1 (Spring 1999), pages 1-58.

In 1867, Hardy was 27 years old.  Yeats was 19 when he wrote "Ephemera." It is not surprising that the two young romantics might alight upon a similar theme and similar images.  But in their own idiosyncratic fashions, of course.

John Nash, "Autumn, Berkshire" (1951)

                    Neutral Tones

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
          -- They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
          On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
          Like an ominous bird a-wing. . . .

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
          And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1899).

"Neutral Tones," like "Ephemera," is a poem that I discovered in my twenties.  I recall being particularly taken with:  "The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die."  The entire poem is evocative of that time of life, isn't it?

John Nash
"The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble" (1922)

The following poem provides a nice complement to both "Neutral Tones" and "Ephemera."  Serendipitously, next Monday will be "Monday the 28th of October."

               Eastville Park

I sat on a bench in Eastville Park
It was Monday the 28th of October
I am your old intentions she said
And all your old intentions are over.

She stood beside me, I did not see her
Her shadow fell on Eastville Park
Not precise or shapely but spreading outwards
On the tatty grass of Eastville Park.

A swan might buckle its yellow beak
With the black of its eye and the black of its mouth
In a shepherd's crook, or the elms impend
Nothing of this could be said aloud.

I did not then sit on a bench
I was a shadow under a tree
I was a leaf the wind carried
Around the edge of the football game.

No need for any return for I find
Myself where I left myself -- in the lurch
There are no trams but I remember them
Wherever I went I came here first.

C. H. Sisson, Anchises (Carcanet 1976).  Eastville Park is in Bristol, where Sisson was born and raised.

Sisson's use of "impend" in "the elms impend" (line 11) is lovely:  he combines the word's usual emotional sense (e.g., "impending doom") with its less commonly used physical sense: "to hang over" or "to overhang."

John Nash, "The Garden" (1951)

Monday, October 21, 2013


A small tree stands by itself out in one of the fields that I pass through on my afternoon walk.  Each autumn I watch the tree's leaves turn red and then fall over the course of a few weeks.  In time, the lone empty tree is surrounded by a round pall of red.

I am reminded of a prose passage by R. S. Thomas:

"There was a large ash tree at the entrance to the rectory lane that would be completely yellow by November.  One autumn the leaves remained on it longer than usual.  But there came a great frost one night, and the following day, as the sun rose, the leaves began to fall.  They continued to fall for hours until the tree was like a golden fountain playing silently in the sun; I shall never forget it."

R. S. Thomas, "Former Paths" (1972), in R. S. Thomas, Autobiographies (translated from Welsh by Jason Walford Davies) (J. M. Dent 1997), page 15.

Thomas revisited the incident in a later essay:

"At the end of the lane from the rectory to the main road, there was a very large ash tree.  The leaves remained on it very late one autumn, and all yellow.  But one night in November it froze hard until, when morning came, everywhere was white.  There was no wind, but as the sun rose above the hill, the leaves began to thaw in its modest warmth and then fall.  For two hours or more it was as if a golden fountain were playing there, as the leaves fell to form a thick carpet covering the road."

R. S. Thomas, "No-one" (1985), Ibid, page 101.

George Vicat Cole, "Harvesting in the Thames Valley" (1888)

In a previous post regarding Thomas's poem "A Thicket in Lleyn," I noted that the poem was based upon an experience that Thomas also described in prose.  The same thing occurs with respect to the ash tree that became a fountain of leaves.

          The Bush

I know that bush,
Moses; there are many of them
in Wales in the autumn, braziers
where the imagination
warms itself.  I have put off
pride and, knowing the ground
holy, lingered to wonder
how it is that I do not burn
and yet am consumed.

And in this country
of failure, the rain
falling out of a black
cloud in gold pieces there
are none to gather,
I have thought often
of the fountain of my people
that played beautifully here
once in the sun's light
like a tree undressing.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (Macmillan 1983).

The beginning of "The Bush" immediately brings to mind lines from Thomas's "The Bright Field":  ". . . It is the turning/aside like Moses to the miracle/of the lit bush, to a brightness/that seemed as transitory as your youth/once, but is the eternity that awaits you."  Likewise, the final lines of the poem are reminiscent of the final lines of "A Thicket in Lleyn":

Navigate by such stars as are not
leaves falling from life's
deciduous tree, but spray from the fountain
of the imagination, endlessly
replenishing itself out of its own waters.

George Vicat Cole, "Harvest Time" (1860)

Charles Tomlinson has written about a similar experience.

   One Day of Autumn

One day of autumn
sun had uncongealed
the frost that clung
wherever shadows spread
their arctic greys among
October grass:  mid-
field an oak still
held its foliage intact
but then began
releasing leaf by leaf
full half,
till like a startled
flock they scattered
on the wind:  and one
more venturesome than all
the others shone far out
a moment in mid-air,
before it glittered off
and sheered into the dip
a stream ran through
to disappear with it

Charles Tomlinson, The Shaft (Oxford University Press 1978).

George Vicat Cole, "Autumn Morning" (1891)

Friday, October 18, 2013

"The Falling Of The Leaves"

The two autumn poems by Arthur Symons in my previous post got me to thinking of autumn poems by another turn-of-the-century poet:  W. B. Yeats.  As I age, I find myself drawn more and more to the Yeats of the Celtic Twilight period.  Although Yeats's egotism and haughtiness have always been a stumbling block for me, I have never lost my fondness for the romantic, dreamy, love-struck poems of his early years (say up until about 1903, when In the Seven Woods was published).

Many of us went through a period of youthful infatuation with the poems of the younger Yeats.  And though the years have taught us a few things (as they taught Yeats), the poems are redolent of the time when I first read them.  They can still make the heart skip a beat -- for the poem itself and for what it brings back.

William Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

            The Falling of the Leaves

Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.

The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.

W. B. Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889).

Alexander Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (c. 1917)


'Your eyes that once were never weary of mine
Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,
Because our love is waning.'
                                                      And then she:
'Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the lone border of the lake once more,
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep:
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!'

Pensive they paced along the faded leaves,
While slowly he whose hand held hers replied:
'Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.'

The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;
Autumn was over him:  and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
                                      'Ah, do not mourn,' he said,
'That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.'

W. B. Yeats, Ibid.

Well, well.  Whew.  Sigh.  There was a time when I had the whole thing by heart.  It's a laundry list of youthful romantic melancholy, isn't it?  "How far away the stars seem, and how far/Is our first kiss . . . Passion has often worn our wandering hearts . . . our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell."  My favorite is:  " . . . the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom."

Thomas Hardy certainly got it right in the closing stanza of "I Look Into My Glass":

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Or, as a troubadour was newly singing in those long ago days when I was immersed in Yeats: "Either I'm too sensitive or else I'm getting soft." Another heartbreaking ode on the same theme:

Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past.
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Kin And Companion To A Tree"

Recently, mornings here have been foggy.  The fog is thin, and takes on a pinkish-orange glow as the sun rises.  The scene puts me in an 1890s mood:  ethereal, half-lit, vaguely melancholic, vaguely resigned to . . . something or other.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

As I have noted before, there are times during the year when dwelling poetically in the 1890s is entirely appropriate.  I am not one of those who feels that certain types of poetry have become "out-dated."  The word "progress" may (alas!) apply to the world at large, but it does not apply to poetry.  Certain things were done better in the 1890s (and at the turn of the 19th century) than in any other era of poetry, before or since.  We needn't give them up.

Today's news of the world?  Or the dreamy, twilit world of the 1890s?  No contest.

Ford Madox Brown, "Carrying Corn" (1854)


There is so little wind at all,
The last leaves cling, and do not fall
From the bare branches' ends; I sit
Under a tree and gaze at it,
A slender web against the sky,
Where a small grey cloud goes by;
I feel a speechless happiness
Creep to me out of quietness.

What is it in the earth, the air,
The smell of autumn, or the rare
And half reluctant harmonies
The mist weaves out of silken skies,
What is it shuts my brain and brings
These sleepy dim awakenings,
Till I and all things seem to be
Kin and companion to a tree?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906).

Although this may perhaps be said of the entire poem, I think the lines "the rare/And half reluctant harmonies/The mist weaves out of silken skies" capture the 1890s mood in a nutshell.  However, come to think of it, "these sleepy dim awakenings" is not far behind.

George Mason, "The Harvest Moon" (1872)

                            Harvest Moon

Thoughtful luminous harvest moon, as I walk,
The rich and sumptuous night, the procession of trees
Under the moon; the stream's babbling talk;
One star on the eastern ridge hung low on the sea's
Border unseen; a rose-grey shade in the west,
Faded, a petal of sunset, and absolute rose;
Crickets chirp, the sounds of day are at rest;
Under the harvest moon, one by one goes
The austere procession of trees, that walk as I walk.

Arthur Symons, Ibid.

As I have mentioned on another occasion, "grey" is one of Symons's favorite words (together with "twilight").  Thus, it is fitting to find this pairing in line 5: "a rose-grey shade in the west."  The poets of the Nineties often used repetition to achieve a sort of lulling, murmurous, dreamlike -- and (of course!) melancholic -- atmosphere.  Thus, Symons follows "a rose-grey shade" with "a petal of sunset, and absolute rose."  (An aside:  "A petal of sunset" is very nice in and of itself.)  Likewise, we have "thoughtful luminous harvest moon" (line 1), "under the moon" (line 3), and "under the harvest moon" (line 8), as well as the repetitions of "as I walk" (lines 1 and 9) and "procession of trees" (lines 2 and 9).

John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1858)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"The View From The Window"

R. S. Thomas's poems about windows in my previous post got me to thinking about another poem of his.  It is also a "window poem," but I am thinking as well of the image of the ever-changing World beyond the window.  As in these lines from "At the End":  "the tide's pendulum truth/that the heart that is low now/will be at the full tomorrow."  Or these from "The Small Window":  "in one day/You can witness the extent/Of the spectrum and grow rich/With looking."

     The View from the Window

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests.  Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart.  All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; yet what eye,
Looking coolly, or, as we now,
Through the tears' lenses, ever saw
This work and it was not finished?

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

The thought embodied in the poem is lovely:  the World is forever unfinished, but, at any given moment, it is absolutely perfect.  Some may find this thought trite or simplistic.  It is neither.  I'd say it bids fair to be the secret of life.

Felicity Charlton, "Cineraria" (1964)

     Five Minutes at the Window

A boy, in loops and straights, skateboards
down the street.  In number 20
a tree with lights for flowers
says it's Christmas.

The pear tree across the road shivers
in a maidenly breeze.  I know
Blackford Pond will be
a candelabra of light.

A seagull tries over and over again
to pick up something on the road.
Oh, the motorcars.
And a white cat sits halfway up a tree.

Trivia.  What are trivia?
They've blown away my black mood.
I smile at the glass of freesias on the table.
My shelves of books say nothing
but I know what they mean.
I'm back in the world again
and am happy in spite of
its disasters, its horrors, its griefs.

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

Andrew Nairn (1903-1993), "The Hill Road"

"Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert . . ."   I understand the feeling, as well as the longing that underlies the feeling. However, we do not need to find an unhaunted desert.  We are capable of happily finishing forth our fate at this moment by walking out into the World and looking around us.

But the looking is best done without thinking and without naming.  How difficult it is to simply look!

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, -- all in one."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Part IV, Chapter XVI, Section 28 (1856).

W. Floyd Nash, "Canonbury Tower" (1942)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"The Heart That Is Low Now Will Be At The Full Tomorrow"

In his later years, R. S. Thomas lived in a stone cottage near the sea on the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales.  I recently came across a poem of his that I had completely forgotten.  It dates from his years on the Peninsula.  I was immediately reminded of Patrick Kavanagh's "My Room" (which I posted here last month), and, in particular, its final stanza:

My room is a musty attic,
But its little window
Lets in the stars.

Frederick William Hayes, "The Rivals from Llanddwyn" (c. 1884)

          At the End

Few possessions: a chair,
a table, a bed
to say my prayers by,
and, gathered from the shore,
the bone-like, crossed sticks
proving that nature
acknowledges the Crucifixion.
All night I am at 
a window not too small
to be frame to the stars
that are no further off
than the city lights
I have rejected.  By day
the passers-by, who are not
pilgrims, stare through the rain's
bars, seeing me as prisoner
of the one view, I who
have been made free
by the tide's pendulum truth
that the heart that is low now
will be at the full tomorrow.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (Bloodaxe Books 1995).

"A window not too small/to be frame to the stars" is what got me to thinking of Kavanagh's "its little window/Lets in the stars."  The poem also brings to mind James Reeves's "Animula":  ". . . An old soul/In a narrow cottage . . ."

Frederick William Hayes, "Llanddwyn" (c. 1884)

I recently suggested that, lest we lose sight of his poetry, we should be wary of the prevalent caricature of Thomas as a curmudgeon.  That being said, I concede that Thomas's disposition was not exactly, shall we say, a welcoming one.  He was by nature an anchorite who was a little grumpy. But, to his credit, he does not dissemble in his poetry:  harshness coexists with beauty.   Like life.
    The Small Window

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only.  A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich

With looking.  Have a care;
This wealth is for the few
And chosen.  Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

R. S. Thomas, Not That He Brought Flowers (Rupert Hart-Davis 1968).

Frederick William Hayes, "Llanddwyn Abbey" (c. 1884)

The lines "A hill lights up/Suddenly; a field trembles/With colour and goes out/In its turn" bring to mind one of Thomas's finest poems -- a poem which has appeared here before, but which is always worth revisiting.

            The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Frederick William Hayes, "Clynnog Beach" (c. 1895)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Arrivals And Departures

Well, yes, "life is a journey, not a destination."  The statement is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it is not clear that he is actually the source.  I suspect Chinese philosophers were saying something along these lines a few millennia before we in the West got around to saying it.

By now, of course, this old saw seems hopelessly devalued.  But let's face it: old saws are often true.  Moreover, the notion is not simply the stock-in-trade of self-help gurus.  For instance, C. P. Cavafy's wonderful poem "Ithaka" is a variation on the theme, and Cavafy was as unillusioned as they come (in his own dreamy way).  Here are the closing stanzas:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961), "Kirkcudbright: Evening" (1914)

   Getting Where?

What so pure
as arrivals,
each a promise
of new beginnings?

We step into a place
we've never seen
or a place
where once we suffered.

And silly hope greets us, She says
What a beautiful Spring day
and smiles charmingly
among the falling leaves.

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

This poem explores the "wherever you go, there you are" conundrum that I have considered in my "No Escape" series.  Dream destinations are not always what they're cracked up to be, are they?  The final stanza is lovely.

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

Here is R. S. Thomas in his 79th year:


The deception of platforms
where the arrivals and the departures
coincide.  And the smiles
on the faces of those welcoming

and bidding farewell are
to conceal the knowledge
that destinations are the familiarities
from which the traveller must set out.

R. S. Thomas, Mass for Hard Times (Bloodaxe Books 1992).

The poem is a bit reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's oft-quoted lines:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets (1943).

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (c. 1934)

Finally, as is usually the case, Philip Larkin shakes us by the shoulders and says:  "Snap out of it!"

       Autobiography at an Air-Station

Delay, well, travellers must expect
Delay.  For how long?  No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can't be long . . . We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers.  Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends?  No: in the race for seats
You're best alone.  Friendship is not worth while.

Six hours pass: if I'd gone by boat last night
I'd be there now.  Well, it's too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning.  I feel staled,
Stupefied, by inaction -- and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear; I set
So much on this Assumption.  Now it's failed.

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).  Larkin wrote the poem in December of 1953, at the ripe old age of 31 (with fear already setting in).

As long-time (and much appreciated) readers of this blog may recall, Larkin can do little wrong in my book.  Thus, I confess that I am fond of this poem, however dreary (or horrific?) it may seem to some.  Here's a thought:  Larkin has condensed Dante's Inferno into a sonnet.  "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a dark wood . . ."

Charles Oppenheimer, "From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Something To Wear Against The Heart In The Long Cold"

Like Philip Larkin, R. S. Thomas is a victim of caricature.  To wit:  "The curmudgeonly, irascible God-doubting priest who refused to have a vacuum cleaner in his house because of the noise."  Or some variation on that theme.  Caricature is often an excuse for not reading poems.

Here is one way to dispense with caricatures.  Forget a poet's "Collected Poems."  Find a single small volume of his or her poems and try to read it as though you were coming to the poetry for the first time.  For instance, the following poem comes from a book that was published in 1958.

          A Day in Autumn

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees' shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn's mirror.  Having looked up
From the day's chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

What does Thomas's life -- or the caricature of it -- have to do with this? Nothing, of course.

A side-note:  the final four lines of "A Day in Autumn" bring to mind Seamus Heaney's "The Peninsula" ("now you will uncode all landscapes/By this") and Derek Mahon's "Thinking of Inis Oirr in Cambridge, Mass." ("I clutch the memory still, and I/Have measured everything with it since").

John Milne Donald, "The Tree" (1861)

Now, here is a poem from a volume that was published in 1986.  Pretend you know nothing of Thomas.  Make no assumptions.

          A Thicket in Lleyn

I was no tree walking.
I was still.  They ignored me,
the birds, the migrants
on their way south.  They re-leafed
the trees, budding them
with their notes.  They filtered through
the boughs like sunlight,
looked at me from three feet
off, their eyes blackberry bright,
not seeing me, not detaching me
from the withies, where I was
caged and they free.
                                      They would have perched
on me, had I had nourishment
in my fissures.  As it was,
they netted me in their shadows,
brushed me with sound, feathering the arrows
of their own bows, and were gone,
leaving me to reflect on the answer
to a question I had not asked.
'A repetition in time of the eternal
I AM.'  Say it.  Don't be shy.
Escape from your mortal cage
in thought.  Your migrations will never
be over.  Between two truths
there is only the mind to fly with.
Navigate by such stars as are not
leaves falling from life's
deciduous tree, but spray from the fountain
of the imagination, endlessly
replenishing itself out of its own waters.

R. S. Thomas,  Experimenting with an Amen (Macmillan 1986). "Withies" (line 11) are willows.

John Milne Donald, "A Highland Stream: Glenfruin" (1861)

It is interesting to compare the poem with a parallel passage from Thomas's prose work A Year in Llyn (Blwyddyn yn Llyn), which he wrote in Welsh:

"I was in a thicket of willows.  As there was a light breeze, I could hear the sound of the distant sea, but it was perfectly quiet amongst the trees. Gradually, I noticed the number of goldcrests that were there.  The grove was full of them, flying hither and thither after the gnats.  I stood perfectly still and they started to come closer.  Some of them came within an arm's length on the branches, busily seeking their food, but hesitating nervously a moment to stare at the piece of wood that was different from the rest! They were so close I could see their dark eyes, like blackberry seeds.  And the air was continuously full of the rustling of their wings, as they jumped from one twig to another.  I almost expected to take one of them on my arm, but gradually they moved on in search of food, and complete silence returned to the trees, with only the sun's rays to remind me of the gold of their crests.  It is moments like these that remain in the memory and that repay you for the trouble of setting about knowing and understanding nature."

R. S. Thomas (translated by Jason Walford Davies), in R. S. Thomas, Autobiographies (J. M. Dent 1997), page 144.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1864)