Saturday, September 27, 2014

Green Slates. A Floor Of Red Tiles And Blue. Crushed Bracken And The Wings Of Doves. Moth And Gnat And Cobweb-Time.

It's funny, the things that stay with us in memory.  Births, deaths, and other milestones, yes.  But what are we to make of the clarity and persistence of certain seemingly random moments out of the past?

But, then, they are not random after all, are they?  There is a reason for their clarity, their tug and pull.  I suspect that most of us know quite well the buried emotions that these revenants carry with them.  Speaking solely for myself, I have become adept at not going down the turning paths that lead to these all-too-clear vales of memory.  Why?  Nothing dire or secretive.  Merely something along these lines:

I know not how, but as I count
     The beads of former years,
Old laughter catches in my throat
     With the very feel of tears.

Robert Louis Stevenson, New Poems and Variant Readings (1918).

An unacceptable and cowardly excuse, I know.  One ought to view the survival of emotions -- both good and bad -- as a treasure.  And I do, I do. Yet . . .

Benjamin Leader, "Betws-y-Coed Church" (1863)

To a large extent, Thomas Hardy's poetry is an exercise in the recovery and recounting of the past.  One gets the feeling that he spent much of his life inhabiting the past -- actually reliving it.  He wrote of himself:  "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.  One can thus understand why Hardy's poems concerning incidents from his past bear such immediacy and emotion.  One suspects this was both a blessing and a curse.

                    Green Slates

It happened once, before the duller
     Loomings of life defined them,
I searched for slates of greenish colour
     A quarry where men mined them;

And saw, the while I peered around there,
     In the quarry standing
A form against the slate background there,
     Of fairness eye-commanding.

And now, though fifty years have flown me,
     With all their dreams and duties,
And strange-pipped dice my hand has thrown me,
     And dust are all her beauties,

Green slates -- seen high on roofs, or lower
     In waggon, truck, or lorry --
Cry out:  "Our home was where you saw her
     Standing in the quarry!"

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

Benjamin Leader, "On The Llugwy Below Capel Curig" (1903)

The moments of which I speak are notable for their ostensible ordinariness.  Yet, even as they occur, we often have an inkling that something has clicked, that we have arrived at a moment out of time that will for ever be with us.


Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (1922).

Benjamin Leader, "Haymaking" (1876)

The following poem has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting, for it captures perfectly what I am (inarticulately) trying to get at.


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Benjamin Leader, "At Evening Time It Shall Be Light" (1897)

I suggested above that Thomas Hardy "spent much of his life inhabiting the past."  This was not, however, a matter of escapism into a happier world. Sometimes, perhaps, it was:  for instance, when he was recalling his younger years with his family.  Much of the time, however, he was revisiting loss.

                       The Rift
            (Song: Minor Mode)

'Twas just at gnat and cobweb-time,
When yellow begins to show in the leaf,
That your old gamut changed its chime
From those true tones -- of span so brief! --
That met my beats of joy, of grief,
            As rhyme meets rhyme.

So sank I from my high sublime!
We faced but chancewise after that,
And never I knew or guessed my crime. . . .
Yes; 'twas the date -- or nigh thereat --
Of the yellowing leaf; at moth and gnat
            And cobweb-time.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).

"At moth and gnat and cobweb-time."  Lines such as this remind us that, at heart, Hardy was, and always remained, a countryman.  Time and again in his poetry we experience this interrelationship between the particulars of the seasons and the playing out of human destiny.  But not in a manipulative sense.  The two worlds move forward in their own courses. At times, they are indifferent to, and separate from, one another.  At other times, they are entirely intertwined.  But Hardy's vision was capacious and all-encompassing:  he could not imagine the one without the other.  Thus, remembering a loss, cobweb-time came to mind.  When yellow begins to show in the leaf.

Benjamin Leader, "Quiet Valley Among The Welsh Hills" (1860)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


I do not accept the common caricature of Thomas Hardy as a "pessimist." Poets who report things as they see them are often pigeon-holed as "pessimists" by those who have not taken the time to actually read the poetry.  Philip Larkin is often caricatured (wrongly) in the same fashion. As it turns out, few poets have written about the human condition and individual human beings with as much wisdom, sensitivity, empathy, and compassion as have Hardy and Larkin, the purported "pessimists."

Beyond this, there is an interesting cosmological thread that runs through Hardy's poetry.  It is true that he viewed the Cosmos (or Existence or the Universe) as something that is, at best, indifferent to our fate.  Hence, we find him referring to "Crass Casualty," "purblind Doomsters," and the like. There is no denying that he possessed a tragic sense of life.

But there is another side of Hardy that can be described as serene, and accepting, in the face of this state of affairs.  This serenity and acceptance arise from a sense of -- I am wary of using these words -- oneness and continuity, of timelessness in the midst of unceasing change.  This was not the product of any theological principles.  Hardy did not go in for those.

But I should stop, and let the poems speak for themselves.

                                In a Museum

Here's the mould of a musical bird long passed from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There's a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges in me still with its sweet singing.

Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird
Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending
Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard,
In the full-fugued song of the universe unending.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

The bird of the poem is a fossil of archaeopteryx, which Hardy saw in the Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter in 1915.  J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 345.

Call me dreamy, addle-pated, and/or old-fashioned, but I love a poet who writes without irony of the "visionless wilds of space" and "the full-fugued song of the universe unending."

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "First Frost"

Later in the same volume -- which was published in Hardy's 77th year -- we find this:

               The Occultation

When the cloud shut down on the morning shine,
        And darkened the sun,
I said, "So ended that joy of mine
        Years back begun."

But day continued its lustrous roll
        In upper air;
And did my late irradiate soul
        Live on somewhere?

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses.

The OED defines "irradiate" as: "illumined; made bright or brilliant."

John Aldridge, "The River Pant Near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)

As I have noted on previous occasions, Hardy is at home in graveyards.  In Hardy's poetry, casual conversations with ghosts are a common occurrence, and are no cause for alarm.  It thus makes perfect sense that those who have departed are likely to find their way back into our World via other avenues.  Nothing ever vanishes.  A comforting thought, I think.  One that cannot be proven, of course.  But that is of no moment.


Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago
Whom I often tried to know
May be entering this rose.

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!

Thomas Hardy, Ibid.

John Aldridge, "The Pink Farm" (1940)

All of this is reminiscent of a poem that has appeared here before, a poem that was written on the other side of the world eleven centuries or so before Hardy wrote these three poems.

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

That's it, isn't it?  "A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn." More than enough for one life.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Friday, September 19, 2014

"An Act Never Is Worthier Than In Freeing Spirit That Stifles Under Ingratitude's Weight"

As I age, one of my resolutions is this:  Don't be querulous.  The flip side is this:  Be grateful.  I don't claim to be without fault in obeying my own resolutions.  But I try to keep them in mind.

On a daily basis the news of the world arrives at our virtual doorstep.  The news is rarely good.  In fact, it is usually horrific.  Otherwise it would not be news.  Our personal lives are, like all else, subject to the vacillations of constant change, good and bad.  Permanent bliss with happy faces all around is not our lot, I'm afraid.  But this state of affairs ought not to preclude gratitude.

If I may be forgiven a personal note.  Earlier this year, I received the proverbial wake-up call in the middle of the night (2:15 a.m., to be exact) bringing news of personal loss from half a world away.  Today I watched a row of trees shedding yellow leaves in the wind against a dark grey sky.

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

                           The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Trefoil . . . . hedge sparrow . . . the stars on the edge of night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). All of the ellipses appear in the original.

Ivor Gurney can embarrass you into gratitude for life and its never-ending wonders.  He most likely wrote "The Escape" in the autumn of 1923, after he had been involuntarily committed to an asylum.  But this is certainly not the poem of a madman.  Far from it.  From the beginning to the end of his life, Gurney never ceased to love and treasure everything in the World, no matter how humble.  We all can learn from him.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Seven Brussel Sprouts" (1955)

Here is another way of looking at things, working from the inside out.

          Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated.  My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself:  it must be that the soul
has some secret sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
circle can take in all, accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid), Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

"The universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting."  If we think of the universe in this fashion, how can we approach it -- and our own life -- with anything but gratitude?

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

Again, Ivor Gurney:

            Common Things

The dearness of common things --
Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves,
And the whole family of crockery --
Wood-axes, blades, helves.

Ivory milk, earth's coffee,
The white face of books
And the touch, feel, smell of paper --
Latin's lovely looks.

Earth fine to handle;
The touch of clouds,
When the imagining arm leaps out to caress
Grey worsted or wool clouds.

Wool, rope, cloth, old pipes
Gone, warped in service;
And the one herb of tobacco,
The herb of grace, the censer weed,
Of whorled, blue, finger-traced curves.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Five Oyster Shells" (1961)

To revisit, with apologies, a statement that has appeared here on more than one occasion:  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.44 (italics in original) (translated by C. K. Ogden) (1921).

                             The Miracles

What things I have missed today, I know very well
But the seeing of them each new time is miracle,
Nothing between Bredon and Dursley has
Anyday yesterday's precise unpraised grace.
The changed light, or curve changed mistily
Coppice now bold cut:  yesterday's mystery.
A sense of mornings, once seen, for ever gone,
Its own for ever; alive, dead, my possession.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems.

Words like "mystical" (Wittgenstein), "soul" (Borges), and "miracle" (Gurney) cause many moderns to feel uncomfortable.  They regard the words with irony.  (Irony being their primary way of looking at the World.) The twin gospels of Science and Progress make such words, and those who utter them, seem old-fashioned, out-of-sync.  But these things are a matter of belief all the way around, aren't they?

Eliot Hodgkin, "Six Cape Gooseberries" (1954)

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Names Of Stars

I do not know the names of stars.  I have come across them in reading, of course.  But, looking at the crowded sky, I cannot place the names to the faces.  Though I find the faces beautiful and entrancing.

Mind you, I am not flaunting my ignorance.  I would love to find myself in the company of someone who could look up into that vastness and begin to name names.  In the same way, I admire those who can rattle off the Latin binomials for flora and fauna.  But my resources are limited.  As I have noted before, I am the sort of person who reads a poem or two a day, and then needs to turn them over and over, daydreaming all the while. Becoming a namer of stars is simply not in the cards, I'm afraid.

I do, however, have a favorite piece of star-lore.  What we, in English, call "the Milky Way," the Japanese call ama-no-gawa:  "river of the heavens" or "river of the sky" or "river of Heaven."  I believe that I can locate the river of Heaven, if pressed.

Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)

This apostrophe on my ignorance was prompted by coming across the following poem.

                         The South

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars,
from the bench of shadow to have watched
those scattered lights
that my ignorance has learned no names for,
nor their places in constellations,
to have heard the note of water
in the cistern,
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle,
the silence of the sleeping bird,
the arch of the entrance, the damp
-- these things perhaps are the poem.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by W. S. Merwin), Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

"The silence of the sleeping bird" is particularly nice, I think.

Paul Drury, "September" (1928)

Still, the naming of stars is a lovely thing, reminiscent of the naming of flowers:  heart's ease, lad's love, forget-me-nots . . .  Thomas Hardy's phrase "constellated daisies" comes suddenly to mind, as well as Andrew Young's lines about a field of daisies at night:  "For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star."

                    Mirach, Antares . . .

Mirach, Antares, Vega, Caph, Alcor --
From inch-wide eyes I scan their aeon-old flames,
Enthralled:  then wonder which enchants me more --
They, or the incantation of their names.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).

Beset with insomnia, Ivor Gurney often went on night-long walks in the country and the city.  Not surprisingly, stars and their constellations often appear in his poetry as his companions on these walks.

                         Stars Sliding

The stars are sliding wanton through trees,
The sky is sliding steady over all.
Great Bear to Gemini will lose his place
And Cygnus over world's brink slip and fall.

Follow-my-Leader's not so bad a game.
But were it leap frog:  O to see the shoots
And tracks of glory; Scorpions and Swans tame
And Argo swarmed with Bulls and other brutes.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Graham Sutherland, "Michaelmas" (1928)

Finally, on constellations, there is this.  We cannot say for certain that it was composed by Edward Thomas.  But we do know that it was found on a page in his daughter Bronwen's autograph album.  It is untitled.

This is the constellation of the Lyre:
Its music cannot ever tire,
For it is silent.  No man need fear it:
Unless he wants to, he will not hear it.
                                                         E. T.

Cardiff University Library Archive
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (Oxford)

Thursday, September 11, 2014


I have been in a vague 1920s mood this week, and thus found myself perusing Georgian Poetry, 1920-1922, the final installment of Edward Marsh's five-volume series that began in December of 1912.  There is something homely (in the sense of "simple, plain, unsophisticated") and comforting about these volumes, with their paper-covered boards, gilt-lettering, and now age-toned pages.

I realize that I am constructing a dream-world:  how can I possibly say that I have been in "a vague 1920s mood this week" when I have no conception of what the 1920s were like in England, across the sea?  But escapism is what it is.  I confess:  at times I long for a different world entirely.

Yes, I know that human nature was no different then, that a horrific war had just ended, and that economic calamity and another war were on the horizon.  Yet there is something fundamentally decent, restrained, circumspect, and seemly about the poems one encounters in Marsh's anthologies.  Something that is the exact opposite of the world in which we now find ourselves.

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Earlier this year I posted poems by William Kerr and J. D. C. Pellow that appeared in Georgian Poetry, 1920-1922.  A few days ago, I discovered this poem in the same volume.


When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;

When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;

-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).  The poem was originally published in Orchard and Vineyard (1921).

The image of the lights of the village "quivering down through water with the stars" is particularly fine.  As is "slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world."  And, at my age, I find the concluding lines something to aspire to. (Although I have no illusions about "the riding-light of truth" beaming overhead!  But, as for "gracious in retreat":  one would hope so.)

Richard Eurich, "Robin Hood's Bay in Wartime" (1940)

I have a soft spot for poems set in peaceful harbors at night.  Hence, "Evening" brought this poem to mind (which, coincidentally, was also published in 1921).

                       Boats at Night

How lovely is the sound of oars at night
     And unknown voices, borne through windless air,
From shadowy vessels floating out of sight
     Beyond the harbour lantern's broken glare
To those piled rocks that make on the dark wave
     Only a darker stain.  The splashing oars
Slide softly on as in an echoing cave
     And with the whisper of the unseen shores
Mingle their music, till the bell of night
     Murmurs reverberations low and deep
That droop towards the land in swooning flight
     Like whispers from the lazy lips of sleep.
The oars grow faint.  Below the cloud-dim hill
The shadows fade and now the bay is still.

Edward Shanks (1892-1953), The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).

Think of it:  T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land would be published in the following year.  I was once entranced by it, and I still find it . . . interesting. But it now seems overwrought.  And Eliot seems full of himself.  When it comes to "modernism," I suppose I am an apostate.  "Evening" and "Boats at Night" seem more, well, human.  These sorts of poems may not be ironic enough, or unillusioned enough, for some "modern" tastes.  They certainly do not pass muster for the avant-garde.  They are unashamedly "old-fashioned."  All the better.

Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

Finally, a poem which (for me, at least) has the same evocative feeling as the poems by Sackville-West and Shanks.

     A Ship, an Isle, a Sickle Moon

A ship, an isle, a sickle moon --
With few but with how splendid stars
The mirrors of the sea are strewn
Between their silver bars!
          *     *     *
An isle beside an isle she lay,
The pale ship anchored in the bay,
While in the young moon's port of gold
A star-ship -- as the mirrors told --
Put forth its great and lonely light
To the unreflecting Ocean, Night.
And still, a ship upon her seas,
The isle and the island cypresses
Went sailing on without the gale:
And still there moved the moon so pale,
A crescent ship without a sail!

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), in John Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (1916).  The ellipses are in the original.

Flecker was of a romantic bent, which was further colored by the time he spent in the Mediterranean and the Middle East as a consular official.  In tone and diction, his poetry often has a Romantic-Victorian feel to it. However, in a number of poems he adopted a more direct, less florid approach, while still retaining his distinctive sensibility.  (In this regard, I recommend a perceptive essay (unfinished) that he wrote about A. E. Housman.  Flecker remarks of A Shropshire Lad:  "[T]here are no cacophonous lines.  Mr. Housman has achieved this fine result mainly because he has used pure spoken English with hardly any admixture of poetic verbiage."  James Elroy Flecker, Collected Prose (1920), page 226.) It is a pity he died so young.

Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"Nine Leaves A Minute"

October has long been my favorite month.  However, the astonishing beauty of this past week is prompting me to equivocate.  What, then, of September?

Yesterday afternoon, beneath a cloudless sky, I walked west down an avenue of trees beside a marina.  A pleasant breeze -- without the underlying chill that often accompanies late summer breezes -- caused the rigging of the sailboats on my left to whistle and whirr, while the tackle tinkled like cowbells in a distant Alpine meadow.

A hundred or so yards in front of me, the waters of Puget Sound glittered silver and blue, stretching to the green-blue islands and mountains on the opposite shore.  Out on the Sound, about a quarter of a mile away, a large white cruise ship headed north to Canada and Alaska.

And the leaves, what of the leaves?  The leaves are still mostly green, although a few yellow precursors spun down around me as I walked.  A few others followed me down the path toward the water.  Gentle reminders.

As I walked, a thought occurred to me:  "What if eternity is like this?"

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

Thomas Hardy dated the following poem "November 8, 1923."  Yet I think the poem has a September feel to it.

          The Best She Could

        Nine leaves a minute
        Swim down shakily;
        Each one fain would spin it
        Straight to earth; but, see,
        How the sharp airs win it
Slantwise away! -- Hear it say,
"Now we have finished our summer show
Of what we knew the way to do:
Alas, not much!  But, as things go,
As fair as any.  And night-time calls,
        And the curtain falls!"

        Sunlight goes on shining
        As if no frost were here,
        Blackbirds seem designing
        Where to build next year;
        Yet is warmth declining:
And still the day seems to say,
"Saw you how Dame Summer drest?
Of all God taught her she bethought her!
Alas, not much!  And yet the best
She could, within the too short time
        Granted her prime."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

"Nine leaves a minute/Swim down shakily" brings to mind a lovely line by Edward Thomas:  "The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow."

James McIntosh Patrick, "Road to Craigowl"

For me, September has two opposing poles.  First:  "Before us lies eternity; our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell."  The prelude to which is this:

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.

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

Here is the other pole.

                      This Solitude of Cataracts

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.
There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.
He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (1950).

The poem begins with a restated version of Heraclitus's famous dictum, which has often been visited by poets.  (For instance, Derek Mahon in "Heraclitus on Rivers" and Louis MacNeice in "Variation on Heraclitus.") But Stevens is not content with Heraclitus's axiom.  Thus, the heart of the poem begins with:  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over./He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing." Which leads, ultimately, to the wish to be "released from destruction."

But Stevens, Yeats, and the rest of us know that release from destruction is not in the cards.

And yet, and yet . . . as I walked down the path yesterday under the trees, toward the glittering water, I wanted the moment never to end.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn Afternoon"

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fireflies And Stars

I once lived in Japan for a year, so I can attest to the fact that the summer heat there can be a stun to the senses.  But, as is usually the case in life, there are compensations.  Thus, for instance, I soon came to share the fondness of the Japanese for cicadas (semi) and fireflies (hotaru), two inhabitants of the "other worlds" that I referred to in my previous post.

When I think back on that summer, what often comes to mind is the constant shrill cry of the semi and the sight of dozens of hotaru floating above the grass beside a river that I sometimes walked along in the evening.  I will save the cicadas for another occasion.  Today I would like to consider the fireflies.

As one might expect, fireflies often find their way into haiku.

     The first fire-fly!
It was off, away, --
     The wind left in my hand.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 214.

     A fire-fly flitted by:
"Look!" I almost said, --
     But I was alone.

Taigi (1709-1772) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 216.

     Here and there,
The night-grass is green
     From the fire-flies.

Hojo (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 218.

The first two haiku capture wonderfully the childlike joy I suspect most of us have felt when we come upon fireflies.  "Look!"  And then the urge to chase after them.  But the third haiku is something else entirely.  About it, I will keep my mouth shut and let it speak for itself.

Eugene Jansson, "View from Kattgrand" (1894)

Of course, the fascination with fireflies knows no boundaries of time or space.  In the final sentences of his last published work, John Ruskin writes:

"We . . . walked together that evening on the hills above [Siena], where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air.  How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves.  How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, 'Cor magis tibi Sena pandit,' and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars."

John Ruskin, Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life, Volume III (1900), pages 181-182 (italics in original).  Ruskin translated "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit" as follows:  "More than her gates, Siena opens her heart to you."  John Ruskin, Val d'Arno (1890 edition), page 26.

It is lovely that Ruskin ended his literary endeavors with this image of the fireflies of Tuscany.  The image haunted him.  Here it is again, in an earlier work:

"The Dominican convent is situated at the bottom of the slope of olives, distinguished only by its narrow and low spire; a cypress avenue recedes from it towards Florence . . . No extended prospect is open to it; though over the low wall, and through the sharp, thickset olive leaves, may be seen one silver gleam of the Arno, and, at evening, the peaks of the Carrara mountains, purple against the twilight, dark and calm, while the fire-flies glance beneath, silent and intermittent, like stars upon the rippling of mute, soft sea."

John Ruskin, On the Old Road, Volume I, Part 1 (1885), pages 112-113.

Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)

And now, from Japan and Italy, onward to New England.

               Fireflies in the Garden

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

This is vintage Frost:  inflation combined with deflation.  And perhaps (although I may be mistaken) there is one of those Frostian ambiguities. To wit:  what does "start" mean in "Achieve at times a very star-like start"?  A "start" as in a "beginning"?  Or a "start" as in a "sudden involuntary movement of the body, occasioned by surprise, terror, joy or grief, or the recollection of something forgotten"?  OED.  But I may simply be slow on the uptake (as well as being in violation of my own oft-stated strictures about over-interpreting poems).

Eugene Jansson, "Riddarfjarden, Stockholm" (1898)

To close, here is Ruskin once more, in a letter written from Pistoia:

"I have just come in from an evening walk among the stars and fireflies. One hardly knows where one has got to between them, for the flies flash, as you know, exactly like stars on the sea, and the impression to the eye is as if one was walking on water.  I was not the least prepared for their intense brilliancy.  They dazzled me like fireworks, and it was very heavenly to see them floating, field beyond field, under the shadowy vines."

John Ruskin, Letter to John James Ruskin (May 28, 1845), in E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (editors), The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXV (Praeterita and Dilecta), page 562, footnote 1.

Harald Sohlberg, "Midsummer Night"