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)
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:
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).
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)