Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I once visited a Buddhist wat (temple) in southern Thailand.  A peanut-shaped concrete island -- about 30 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 2 feet tall -- had been built in the courtyard of the temple.  A carp pond had been hollowed out in the center of the island.  Soil had been brought in to create a border, and small flowering trees had been planted beside the pond.  One could sit on the concrete edge of the island and enjoy the (relatively) cool shade.

Hanging by strings from the branches of the trees were rectangular, blue plastic placards, swaying in the breeze.  Buddhist homilies had been painted in gilt lettering on the placards:  Thai on one side, English on the other.  Two of the homilies struck me at the time, so I wrote them down on a piece of paper, in case they might come in handy.  "A wise man always tames his restless mind."  "A well-guarded mind brings about happiness."

I am not a practitioner of Buddhism.  However, for many years I have been drawn to it as a philosophy.  It keeps returning to me, often through Chinese and Japanese poetry.  It sees things as they are, in a common-sense, down-to-earth fashion.  We do need to tame our restless mind.  A well-guarded mind, although it may not bring about happiness, may bring about a measure of serenity.

Hence:  if you should ever come upon unexpected messages swaying in the wind amongst flowering tree branches, take heed!

Geoffrey Rhoades, "Winter Afternoon, Chalk Farm" (1935)

One can arrive at these timeless and placeless truths from any number of directions.

                       Vain Questioning

What needest thou? -- a few brief hours of rest
Wherein to seek thyself in thine own breast;
A transient silence wherein truth could say
Such was thy constant hope, and this thy way? --
          O burden of life that is
          A livelong tangle of perplexities!

What seekest thou? -- a truce from that thou art;
Some steadfast refuge from a fickle heart;
Still to be thou, and yet no thing of scorn,
To find no stay here, and yet not forlorn? --
          O riddle of life that is
          An endless war 'twixt contrarieties.

Leave this vain questioning.  Is not sweet the rose?
Sings not the wild bird ere to rest he goes?
Hath not in miracle brave June returned?
Burns not her beauty as of old it burned?
          O foolish one to roam
          So far in thine own mind away from home!

Where blooms the flower when her petals fade,
Where sleepeth echo by earth's music made,
Where all things transient to the changeless win,
There waits the peace thy spirit dwelleth in.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (1918).

In some parts of the world more words are needed than in others.  For instance, might not the essence of de la Mare's poem be boiled down to this?

     The quietness;
A chestnut leaf sinks
     Through the clear water.

Shohaku (1443-1527) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 231.

Or this?

     A clear waterfall;
Into the ripples
     Fall green pine-needles.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 90.

Charles Cundall, "Temeside, Ludlow" (1923)

Returning to the other side of the world, we find a similar brevity and wisdom.


Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

It is all one and the same, isn't it?  Location is mere happenstance. Centuries are of no moment.

Charles Frederick Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"What Will Survive Of Us Is Love"

In a comment to a recent post, a long-time (and much-appreciated!) reader called our attention to W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" and, in particular, the line:  "We must love one another or die."  In later years, Auden famously (or infamously) disavowed both the line and the poem, and directed that it be omitted from any future editions of his Collected Poems.

"Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September, 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line 'We must love one another or die' and said to myself:  'That's a damned lie!  We must die anyway.'  So, in the next edition, I altered it to 'We must love one another and die.'  This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza.  Still no good.  The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty -- and must be scrapped."

W. H. Auden, in John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (Faber and Faber 1998), page 292.

Of course, Auden had no control over the ultimate fate of either the poem or the line.  The poem is one that people tended to gravitate to whenever some fresh horror appeared in the 20th century -- and tend to gravitate to when some fresh horror appears in the 21st century.  And "we must love one another or die" is the line that is usually sought out.

George Price Boyce (1826-1897), "At Binsey, Near Oxford"

Auden's line is paired in my mind with this poem.

           An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth.  The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

To begin with, an aside:  although Larkin is not a "nature poet," few have written lovelier descriptions of the World around us.  He does this quite unobtrusively.  For instance, consider the wonderful sequence in the fifth stanza.  "Snow fell, undated."  "Light/Each summer thronged the glass."  (An image which anticipates "High Windows":  "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:/The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.") "A bright/Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/Bone-riddled ground." Granted, not John Clare, Edward Thomas, or Andrew Young.  But beautiful.

And so comes the final stanza, which is Larkin through and through. First, there is the characteristic undeceived (or, to quote the title of one of his books, "the less deceived") Larkin:  "Only an attitude remains://Time has transfigured them into/Untruth."  But then (as so often happens in the closing stanzas of Larkin's best poems) there is this:  a giving, followed by a taking back, followed by a returning (with perhaps one or more qualifications) unfolds:  ". . . to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love."

I have no doubt that these equivocal reversals come from deep within Larkin.  They are not feigned.  But I also think that he learned some of this from two poets he admired who often did the same thing in their final stanzas: Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.  I have quoted more than once what Larkin said of Thomas: "What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), in Anthony Thwaite (editor), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (Faber and Faber 1992), page 599.  Yes, exactly.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

My view is this:  Larkin labors to keep his undeceived posture intact.  He is wary of appearing sentimental.  But in his heart-of-hearts he wants to write that final line, and he wants to believe it is true.

In an interview published in 1981, he said this:

"Interviewer:  But did you feel sceptical about the faithfulness that's preserved for us in stone?

Larkin:  No.  I was very moved by it.  Of course it was years ago.  I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it's only making a joke.  I was delighted when a friend asked me if I knew a poem ending 'What will survive of us is love.'  It suggested the poem was making its way without me.  I like them to do that.'"

Philip Larkin, interview with John Haffenden, in Philip Larkin, Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews (Faber and Faber 2001), page 58.

So be it:  "What will survive of us is love."

Arundel Tomb, Chichester Cathedral

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Lantern

I've been thinking about the passage from P. J. Kavanagh's autobiography The Perfect Stranger that I quoted in my previous post, and, in particular, this:  "Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own."  Is this merely a statement of the obvious?  I suppose the exemplary among us may find it to be so.  But I am not among that select group.  I have not lived in a manner that is a reflection of the truth Kavanagh states.  Too much sleepwalking and daydreaming.

But then an event such as the one that was the subject of the previous post occurs.  Or, as happened to me earlier this year, someone vanishes from your life for ever (a wake-up call from half a world away at 2:15 in the morning bringing news of death).  At these times "the infinite significance" of which Kavanagh speaks hits home -- at last, at long last. And, suddenly, there you have it:  the fragility and the evanescence of all we are and all we hold dear.

So, to quote again (please forgive me) from my previous post, this time from Philip Larkin:

                  . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume II: Spring (Hokuseido 1950), page 85.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume IV: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 283.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

For all the evil that we witness as human beings, a deeper current runs always, invisible.  Thus, worlds and centuries apart, Robert Herrick and Masaoka Shiki saw, and felt, the same thing.

          Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

William MacLeod, "London Wall and St. Giles Cripplegate" (1941)

And now, from Japan and Devon, to Cumbria in the twentieth century.

                    Five Minutes

'I'm having five minutes,' he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
'Just five minutes,' he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium (1954).

Norman Clark (1913-1992), "Flying Kites by a Gas Works near Bexhill"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"For Ever Gone"

I write this post with some reluctance.  This is not a current events blog.  If anything, it is intended to be a respite from current events.  Moreover, I am very conscious of not wanting to use another human being's fate for my own purposes.  I can only say in mitigation that I write this out of respect and in remembrance.

Just when we think we have "seen it all," we have not "seen it all."  And so this week we are suddenly reminded:  we will never see it all.

The question arises:  what is the appropriate human way to respond?  Of course, anyone with a ghost of decency reacts with horror and sadness to the latest outrage.  But, then, what?  I have no answers.

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

Recently, I have been revisiting the poetry of Edwin Muir.  In my previous post, I remarked upon his journey through the 20th century.  Last week, for the first time, I came across the following two poems by him.  The first was written during the Second World War.  The second was written in 1958, when it had become clear that the century had not yet exhausted its evil. Nothing has changed since.

Art and poetry can never be enough, of course.  I know that.  And I do not post the poems here in a vain attempt to "explain" things or to place things "in perspective."  That is impossible.  And insulting.  Which I think Muir knew.  He, like all of us, was grasping for something.

     Reading in Wartime

Boswell by my bed,
Tolstoy on my table:
Though the world has bled
For four and a half years,
And wives' and mothers' tears
Collected would be able
To water a little field
Untouched by anger and blood,
A penitential yield
Somewhere in the world;
Though in each latitude
Armies like forests fall,
The iniquitous and the good
Head over heels hurled,
And confusion over all:
Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous,
Tell me wherever I look
That not one soul can die
Of this or any clan
Who is not one of us
And has a personal tie
Perhaps to someone now
Searching an ancient book,
Folk-tale or country song
In many and many a tongue,
To find the original face,
The individual soul,
The eye, the lip, the brow
For ever gone from their place,
And gather an image whole.

Edwin Muir, The Voyage (1946).  The poem was first published on July 8, 1944, in the BBC magazine The Listener.

The first half of the poem, with its literary references, may initially prompt one to think that this will be yet another poem that attempts to resolve things by placing Life in the context of Art.  But a crucial turn occurs in exactly the middle (at line 19):  "Tell me more about life . . ."  From that point onward the poem moves steadily and movingly to another level entirely, culminating in the heartbreaking final lines, which bring us to where we ought to be.  It is not our own personal heartbreak -- the distance is unbridgeable.  But heartbreaking nonetheless.

Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)

                      Impersonal Calamity

Respectable men have witnessed terrible things,
And rich and poor things extraordinary,
These murder-haunted years.  Even so, even so,
Respectable men seem still respectable,
The ordinary no less ordinary,
For our inherited features cannot show
More than traditional grief and happiness
That rise from old and worn and simple springs.
How can an eye or brow
Disclose the gutted towns and the millions dead?
They have too slight an artistry.
Between us and the things that change us
A covenant long ago was set
And is prescriptive yet.
A single grief from man or God
Freely will let
Change in and bring a stern relief.
A son or daughter dead
Can bend the back or whiten the head,
Break and remould the heart,
Stiffen the face into a mask of grief.
It is an ancient art.
The impersonal calamities estrange us
From our own selves, send us abroad
In desolate thoughtlessness,
While far behind our hearts know what they know,
Yet cannot feel, nor ever express.

Edwin Muir, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1960).  The poem was first published in August of 1958 in The London Magazine.

"While far behind our hearts know what they know."  Is this true?  Or is it spurious consolation and/or self-protective rationalization?  But if Muir was writing about this sort of thing 50 years ago, where are we now?  The images arrive unbidden, on a daily basis, in detail.

I'm not certain if this is pertinent or not, but it comes to mind:

"Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own.  There remains in the world this infinite significance and to every event we owe a responsibility.  Also we must forgive ourselves.  You can construct a universe out of that, a heaven and a hell."

P. J. Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (Chatto & Windus 1966).

Perhaps, in the end, it simply comes to this:

                . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower."

Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Way Leads On"

The notion of life as a journey is an ancient and beguiling one.  It has led to truisms such as "life is a journey, not a destination."  But, as I recently noted, truisms tend to be true.  It is all in how the thing is said, isn't it?

               The Way

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It's lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I'll make here my place,
(The road runs on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

Edwin Muir, The Labyrinth (1949).

Muir's life was something of an archetypal journey:  a movement from the seemingly timeless farms and sea of the Orkney Islands into the dispiriting heart of the 20th century -- first Glasgow, then lengthy stays in pre-Second World War Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and in post-War Eastern Europe.  It is no wonder that his poetry is marked by recurrent images of journeys and exiles:  literal and figurative, external and internal, with an underlying sense of the irremediable loss of something that cannot be quite articulated.

"Time wakens a longing more poignant than all the longings caused by the division of lovers in space, for there is no road back into its country.  Our bodies were not made for that journey; only the imagination can venture upon it; and the setting out, the road, and the arrival:  all is imagination."

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (The Hogarth Press 1954), page 224.

Thomas Hennell, "The Guest House, Cerne Abbas" (c. 1940)

From Christina Rossetti, here is another approach to the matter.  The poem has appeared here before, but it is worth a return visit.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
     Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
     From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
     A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
     You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
     Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
     They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
     Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
     Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

Thomas Hennell, "The Avenue, Bucklebury" (c. 1940)

Of course, our journey may be undertaken while staying in one place.

                              The Question

Will you, sometime, who have sought so long and seek
Still in the slowly darkening hunting ground,
Catch sight some ordinary month or week
Of that strange quarry you scarcely thought you sought --
Yourself, the gatherer gathered, the finder found,
The buyer, who would buy all, in bounty bought --
And perch in pride on the princely hand, at home,
And there, the long hunt over, rest and roam?

Edwin Muir, The Narrow Place (1943).

Muir's thoughts are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's well-known 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).

Thomas Hennell, "A View at Ridley" (c. 1940)

Finally, a poem by Edwin Muir's fellow Orcadian Robert Rendall (1898-1967) seems apt.

                      Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (1957).

Thomas Hennell, "The Beech Avenue, Lasham, Hampshire" (c. 1941)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Commonplace: Two Variations On A Theme

"Poetry and Commonplace" is the title of the Warton Lecture on English Poetry delivered by John Bailey in 1919.  I've grown fond of the lecture, no doubt because it accords with my own views on the nature of poetry.  To wit:

"One of the functions of poetry is just this, to discover the life that lies concealed in what are called commonplaces . . . to take a platitude and make of it an aphorism:  to rub off the accumulated rust of time and familiarity which prevents our seeing the fresh and vital truth underneath: to speak of a mother's love, or of the sadness of autumn, in such a way that we may feel them as we may suppose them to have been felt by those who first put such feelings into words, words which for them were as fresh and forcible as the feelings, but have now for us become stale and lifeless."

John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace (Warton Lecture on English Poetry X) (Oxford University Press 1919), page 3.  The lecture is also reprinted in Bailey's The Continuity of Letters (Oxford University Press 1923).

Some of you may say:  "Well, that's obvious."  My response is:  "I'm thick-headed and I need to be reminded of these things."  Others may say: "What about the avant-garde, and the overthrowing of long-established, stale traditions?  Isn't that the function of art?"  My response (yawning) is: "Nothing is more hackneyed, conformist, and unimaginative than the latest iteration of the avant-garde."  Finally, some may say:  "What about 'the poetry of witness,' poetry that addresses the burning issues of the day?"  My response (again, yawning) is (and you have heard this here before):  "Political poetry is an oxymoron."

Stanhope Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)

Bailey gives this as an example of a poem that transforms an ostensibly "trivial" moment into something else entirely.

                                Poor Susan

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
There's a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird.

'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her?  She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in Heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade;
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802).

Bailey writes of Wordsworth:

"The essential business of Wordsworth was to make a primrose by a river's brim [a reference to "Peter Bell"] more than that to every one who reads:  to bring out the strangeness of the common, the interestingness and newness and significance of the commonplace."

Poetry and Commonplace, page 10.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

Given his confident (is grandiose too strong a word?) view of himself, and his interest in big (and often eccentric) ideas, one would not expect W. B. Yeats to dwell upon the commonplace in his poetry.  But, if "Poor Susan" is about the commonplace, what are we to make of this lovely echo?

                    The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1893).

Please rest assured that I am not out to make sport of Yeats (although his personal quiddities are entertaining):  he is a great poet.  And I have previously written fondly of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."  I am merely suggesting (following Bailey's cue) that both Yeats and Wordsworth are at their best when they transform the commonplace, rather than travelling off, untethered, into the upper air (as they were both wont to do).

Stanhope Forbes, "A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach" (1885)

"Poetry has, it would rather seem, two functions with regard to truth:  its discovery and its re-discovery.  The great poet, that is, is sometimes creating and inventing, giving us new thoughts or pictures; and sometimes restating old ones in such a way that it appears as if we were hearing them for the first time.  His originality is of this double kind; an originality of substance and an originality of form.  The one originates something new, the other re-creates something old."

John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace, page 3.

I'm old-fashioned:  I like it when "truth" is mentioned in connection with poetry.

Stanhope Forbes
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, Near Hayle" (1938)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Waves And Robins

I am a slow reader.  When I hear someone say they finished reading a novel last week, I am impressed.  All I can say in response is that I read a few poems last week.  In saying this, I don't intend to sound precious or pedantic.  It's simply the ways things have worked out.

As I have suggested before, a poem -- like a painting -- needs time to develop.  In repose.  I have never been one to rush through art museums: looking at too many paintings makes my head spin.  Likewise with poetry: I don't see the point in reading wide swathes of poetry at a time.  One poem per sitting is my rule of thumb -- even for two-line poems.

John Brett
"Golden Prospects, St Catherine's Well, Land's End, Cornwall" (1881)

Reading poetry is a perambulation, not a race.  Thus, for instance, I continue to leisurely work my way through the poems of Walter de la Mare, discovering small gems.

     Never More, Sailor

Never more, Sailor,
Shalt thou be
Tossed on the wind-ridden,
Restless sea.
Its tides may labour;
All the world
Shake 'neath that weight
Of waters hurled:
But its whole shock
Can only stir
Thy dust to a quiet
Even quieter.
Thou mock'st at land
Who now art come
To such a small
And shallow home;
Yet bore the sea
Full many a care
For bones that once
A sailor's were.
And though the grave's
Deep soundlessness
Thy once sea-deafened
Ear distress,
No robin ever
On the deep
Hopped with his song
To haunt thy sleep.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (1912).

Of course, countless poems have been written about seafarers coming to rest at last on land, there to spend eternity.  "Home is the sailor, home from sea . . ."  Et cetera.

Ah, yes, but what about this?

No robin ever
On the deep
Hopped with his song
To haunt thy sleep.

I could not read those four lines and then move on straightaway to another poem.  I needed a day or so to let them rest, and quietly revolve, in my mind. I fell to sleep remembering them.  I am certainly not recommending this approach for everyone.  Others are no doubt more industrious, and out for bigger game.  I prefer daydreaming as I wander down by-ways.

John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)

If we let poems take their time, detours and diversions may offer themselves up.  De la Mare's sailor home from the sea got me to thinking of the numerous wonderful poems in The Greek Anthology about the sea-side graves of mariners.  For instance:

Though smiling calms should smooth the glassy seas,
Or the light ruffling of the western breeze
Should skim their surface, with no venturous prow
Will I the dreary waste of waters plough.
By sad experience warn'd I tempt no more
The swelling billows and the tempest's roar.

Leonidas (translated by William Shepherd), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849), page 301.


Hail, shipwreck'd corse!  accuse not from the grave,
     The ocean, but the winds, that wrought thy doom:
They wreck'd thee; while the gentle salt-sea wave
     Bore thee to land, to thy parental tomb.

Julianus (translated by Henry Wellesley), Ibid, page 78.


This is a sailor's, that a peasant's tomb:
'Neath sea and land there lurks one common doom.

Plato (translated by Richard Coxe), Ibid, page 234.

John Brett, "The Land's End, Cornwall" (1880)

And what of that lovely robin, haunting (peacefully) the sleep of the sailor? I was reminded of a wonderful poem by Robert Herrick that appeared here in May.

                 To Robin Red-breast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the Wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my Dirge, sweet-warbling Chorister!
For Epitaph, in Foliage, next write this:
     Here, here the Tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

And so a simple poem led to a nice stroll, a stroll during which our frenetic modern world was entirely absent.  Have no fear!  It will still be there when you return.

John Brett, "Forest Cove, Cardigan Bay" (1883)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Now Is The All-Sufficing All Wherein To Love The Lovely Well"

Walter de la Mare continued to use (without irony) "thou" and "thee" and "thy" in his poems into the middle of the 20th century.  I think (without irony) that this is wonderful:  it shows that he was true to his Muse (another bordering-on-the-obsolete word that de la Mare was wont to use).

But please do not get the idea that de la Mare was living in an antiquarian dreamworld.  He was well-acquainted with the realities of the past century. To cite one instance:  he lost his friend Edward Thomas in the First World War.  Of the many elegies written for Thomas, de la Mare's "To E. T.: 1917" (which has appeared here previously) is (for me at least) the most moving   -- and the one which best captures the essence of Thomas.

De la Mare's poetry does not receive the attention it deserves, which is unfortunate.  His final volume of poems appeared in 1953, when he was in his eightieth year.  And he was still writing fine poems.


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

"Whate'er" is also a word that one would not expect to come across in mid-20th century English or American poetry.  A great loss, I would say.

Hilda Carline (1889-1950), "Luxembourg Gardens, Paris"

If a poet is writing well in their seventies or eighties, we may be able to learn a thing or two from them about life.


Only the Blessed of Lethe's dews
     May stoop to drink.  And yet,
Were their Elysium mine to lose,
Could I -- without repining -- choose
     Life's sorrows to forget?


A wise question, that.

I am reminded of a poem from The Greek Anthology that I posted here earlier this year.

This stone, beloved Sabinus, on thy grave
     Memorial small of our great love shall be.
I still shall seek thee lost; from Lethe's wave
     Oh! drink not thou forgetfulness -- of me.

Anonymous (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849), page 107.

Stanislawa De Karlowska, "The Eyot, Richmond" (1941)

This is the last poem in de la Mare's final volume.

                       The Owl

Apart, thank Heaven, from all to do
To keep alive the long day through;
To imagine; think; watch; listen to;
There still remains -- the heart to bless,
Exquisite pregnant Idleness.

Why, we might let all else go by
To seek its Essence till we die . . .

Hark, now! that Owl, a-snoring in his tree,
Till it grow dark enough for him to see.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

The meditation on "Idleness" is marvelous.  But then comes the last couplet, which carries the poem off into another realm entirely.  The lines embody the underlying current of mystery (in an unworldly, supernatural sense) that has often been commented upon in de la Mare's work.  This is a quality that de la Mare shares with Thomas Hardy, who he knew and admired.

"Till it grow dark enough for him to see":  what a lovely way to close a poetic career!

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (1959)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Life Explained, Part Thirty-Two: "A Single Grain Of Rice Falling -- Into The Great Barn"

Human beings tend to believe that the times in which they live are unique or unprecedented.  This belief is particularly prevalent among the social engineers (politicians, scientists, assorted busybodies, and their ilk) who put their faith in Progress.  Truisms come in handy at this point.  There is nothing new under the sun.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

The technological baubles of each successive "Modern Age" mean nothing. The human emotions that swirl within our hearts and minds and souls have not altered a whit in centuries.  When I wander through, say, The Greek Anthology or Robert Herrick's Hesperides I come across local peculiarities that mark out the age in which the poems were written.  But the clearest impression I take away is this:  They are the same as us.

Frederick William Hayes, "Cwm Silyn" (c. 1880)

Thus, twelve centuries ago, a Chinese poet spoke for us all, the living and the dead.  Nothing has changed.

            Climbing the Ling-Ying Terrace and Looking North

Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of Man's Domain;
Gazing into distance I begin to know the vanity of the Carnal World.
I turn my head and hurry home -- back to the Court and Market,
A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Frederick William Hayes, "A Waterfall" (c. 1880)

"A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn."  I cannot claim to have lived in a manner that reflects the wisdom implicit in that line.  I doubt that I ever will.  But it is something to aspire to.  In the meantime, I am happy to jettison (to the best of my limited ability) any notions of uniqueness or novelty in myself or in my times and embrace truisms (which are, after all, true).

                         The Truisms

His father gave him a box of truisms
Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
Or that other his father skulked inside.

Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
He could not remember seeing before.

And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
And something told him the way to behave.
He raised his hand and blessed his home;
The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
And a tall tree sprouted from his father's grave.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (Faber and Faber 1961).  MacNeice's father was a cleric who eventually became a bishop in the Church of Ireland.  He died in 1942, when MacNeice was 34.

MacNeice's poetry generally has a sardonic streak running through it.  But there are times when it gives way, at least in part, and for a moment only.

Frederick William Hayes, "Rock and Mountains" (c. 1880)

                 Realizing the Futility of Life

Ever since the time when I was a lusty boy
Down till now when I am ill and old,
The things I have cared for have been different at different times,
But my being busy, that has never changed.
Then on the shore -- building sand-pagodas.
Now, at Court, covered with tinkling jade.
This and that -- equally childish games,
Things whose substance passes in a moment of time!
While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand;
When there is no Attachment, Doctrine is sound.
Even should one zealously strive to learn the Way,
That very striving will make one's error more.

Po Chu-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

The final four lines have a distinct Taoist and Buddhist component, particularly the concepts of non-attachment and "the Way."  However, it should be noted that these sorts of truths are not limited to Taoism or Buddhism.

Sand-pagodas or sand-castles:  it is all the same.

Frederick William Hayes, "Rocks in the Colwyn" (c. 1881)