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)


Acornmoon said...

A beautifully written, considered and sensitive post.

Fred said...


Thank you for introducing me to Edwin Muir. I had heard the name, but I never really looked closely at his works.

Stephen Pentz said...

acornmoon: thank you very much. As I said in the post, it is something that I was wary of writing about. But I think the coincidence of having come across the two poems by Muir last week, before the event of this week, prompted me to go forward.

It is always good to hear from you, although I wish the circumstances were not of this sort. Thank you for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: you are welcome. I confess that it has been quite a while since I have visited his poetry. At times his preoccupations (for example, myth, archetypes, and history) are a bit too abstract for me, and I feel a lack of human and natural particulars. But, that being said, he wrote a number a fine poems. And, as was mentioned in my previous post, and in the comments to the post, his autobiography is well worth reading.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Unknown said...

It feels like one of those times when respite is not on the menu and perhaps should not be, for those of us with the apparent privilege of choice about where we place our attention.
Your sensitive comments and touching selections woke me out of a numbness into which I had unknowingly slipped.
I am minded of something you said a few months back, Stephen:
"Paying attention -- paying loving attention -- is a duty we owe to the sad and beautiful world and to those making their way through the world with us. A simple thing, one would think. One would think. But, as we all know, simple things are often easier said than done."
Paying attention to those who have gone so suddenly, too...
Thank you for a poignant post that nudged me back to duty.

Stephen Pentz said...

midi: as always, thank you very much for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comments. And thank you for the kind words as well.

You make an excellent point at the outset: many of us do have the choice about where to direct our attention, and we do not always recognize -- or appreciate -- that fact. I am constantly guilty of this. Others live with these sorts of things on a daily basis, without choice. We need to always remember this.

I am flattered that you recall my words, which I had forgotten -- perhaps because they come from a time this year when "calamity" was personal and immediate for me. With all due humility, I stand by them, and I agree with you that they are apt at this time. And, as I said then: "easier said than done." Paying attention is a never-ending challenge.

As for "slipping" into "numbness": well, don't be too hard on yourself. It's something we all do. As I suggested in the post, the daily dose of horrors tends to encourage numbness (speaking solely for myself). Does one stare at the train wreck or turn away? That is always the quandary.

It is always good to hear from you. Thank you again.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, a thoughtful, considered post.Wonderfully written.
There is little else to say. Your own words and those of others who have chosen to comment say much that I would have said myself.
The Edwin Muir poem was not one I was familiar with. It is amazing the number of discoveries to be found in a volume of poetry, that you may have had on your own bookshelf for many years and yet never come across, or perhaps until this moment in time it has never caught your attention.
One of the many delights in visiting First Known When Lost is in making these discoveries. Thank you.

Monophthalmos Rex said...

You've selected two excellent poems to help us through yet another hard time, and for that I and I imagine a great many others thank you. What you say about the limits of poetry is important, too, especially in an age in which the nature and purpose of poetry is so often misunderstood.

I am reminded, both by "Reading in Wartime" and by your comments, of Auden's "September 1, 1939." The prosody--halting, broken lines in quick succession--is the same as Muir's, as is the message that we have seen this all before. It is an extremely powerful poem--one of his best, in my opinion--and perhaps the only good thing that came out of that whole terrible month. And yet, Auden disavowed it later in his life, ordering it excluded from the collected edition of his poems. I think the reason was that it was too political, that it was trying to do what poetry really cannot do. (His stated reason for excluding certain poems what that he no longer believed in them. He also didn't like certain of that poem's lines, apparently: "We must love one another or die," he said, was silly: we will all die, regardless.)

Thank you, again, for this offering, and for giving me so much to think about, again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you very much for the kind words. I was trying to sort out how to react to these sorts of things -- something that we all struggle with. It is good to hear your thoughts.

I agree with you about all of the poetic discoveries that await us. I believe that you and I have talked about this before in connection with Hardy and de la Mare: although we have both enjoyed their poetry for years, there is still undiscovered territory each time we open their books. (I should probably only speak for myself, for you have no doubt gotten further than I have in the exploration of those two!) I never feel that I have exhausted the possibilities, even with poets I am long-acquainted with.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Monophthalmos Rex: I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you. As I indicated in my response to Mr Ashton's comment, this is simply a case of trying to sort things out -- although I know, of course, that they will never be sorted out.

And thank you as well for mentioning "September 1, 1939." It is very apt. And, despite Auden's disavowal, "We must love one another or die" is lovely and perfect. It is, I think, the underlying message of Muir's two poems, the passage from Kavanagh, and Larkin's lines as well.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

It's true that poetry can't do anything. The world blunders on in its cruelty, its madness. An honest poet, however, understands the human predicament, recognizes we live in a fallen world, the heavens, Dickinson says, stitched.

In his unfinished poem "The Fall of Hyperion. A dream," Keats makes a distinction between the poet and the dreamer. The dreamer is self-indulgent and "vexes" the world. The true poet, on the other hand, with his imaginative insight into dark reality provides us a kind of succor.

This is what Muir does. He gives us insight into the dark truth of human existence, its folly, its cruelty--but he does not lie.

True poetry, the acute imagination working at fever pitch, can save the reader from "sable charm" and "dumb enchantment," save one from thoughtlessly sleeping through life. The human condition, this dark, ugly side of it, must be confronted and somehow transcended by the poetic vision.
Think of Keats's "To Autumn."

Below are three small excerpts from Keats's poem on Hyperion. They limn clearly, these few lines, what a true poet is.

Clearly one cannot achieve the heights of poetic splendor unless one sees the world as it is, not as dreamers wish it to be. Seeing the world with an unfilmed eye is what makes Larkin a great poet.

The below lines, then, from Keats:

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment.

'High Prophetess,' said I, 'purge off,
'Benign, if so it please thee, my mind's film.'
'None can usurp this height,' return'd that shade,
'But those to whom the miseries of the world
'Are misery, and will not let them rest.
'All else who find a haven in the world,
'Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,
'If by a chance into this fane they come,
'Rot on the pavement where thou rottedst half.'

'Art thou not of the dreamer tribe?
'The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
'Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
'The one pours out a balm upon the world,
'The other vexes it.'

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you indeed for those wonderful thoughts, which hit the nail right on the head with respect to the role of poetry in coming to terms with the world, and particularly its evils.

My statement in the post -- "art and poetry can never be enough" -- is perhaps too dogmatic: they certainly count for something. (Otherwise, why would I be doing what I do in this blog!) And your bringing in Keats and "Hyperion" points perfectly to what poetry can do. The passages you quote are wonderful. Thank you very much for that.

And thank you as well for your comment on the poems by Muir. When I first read the poems, I squirmed at times. Because of your comment, I now realize why: as you say, "he does not lie." He is not giving us a dream. My squirming was due to his truth-telling, which hit home.

There is much to consider here. Again, thank you very much.