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)


Sam Vega said...

I think you are right about Hardy and his attitude to memories - he often seems to find them very painful, but he always ensures he has at least some sweetness with which to balance them before he presents them to us. "The Rift" is wonderful. The rhyme structure (is that a Sicilian quintain?) and the shorter last lines create a sense of absolute finality. There is definitely no going back.

The two lines
"So sank I from my high sublime!
We faced but chancewise after that"

are almost unbearable. I think it is the contrast between the lofty abstraction of the sublime, and the everyday market-town vernacular which follows it. In terms of the interplay between impersonal destiny and lived human desires, there is as much in this little poem as in one of his novels.

Many thanks.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, those last two lines of Stevenson's verse are particularly poignant aren't they.I suspect we have all experienced that moment, "the catch in the throat", the deep swallow to push the tears back. It is curious how these memories will rise unbidden, taking us by surpise; a scent or a glimpse is enough.
Recently I happened to see a scene from an old British film which I remember being taken to see by my grandmother when I was a child. Suddenly she was with me again, her scent, her voice and the Midlands accent she never lost... so many memories and moments, so close at hand.

I have been reading a lot of Hardy recently, there are always so many delights to discover, The Rift is wonderful.
Thank you for another thoughtful and fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

How true what you say about Hardy, and about others with similar sensibilities. You write:

"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."

I have always thought that Hardy's poem "Castel Boterel," (written in March. 1913) relates one of those brief moments ("It filled but a minute") that seems to contain an infinite amount of emotional freight: "But was there ever / A time of such quality, since or before / In that hill's story?"

The last stanza, to me about as good as anything else Hardy wrote, reveals but once again the ageless paradox of a man yearning for a moment to come again, all the time knowing it is irretrievable. Kierkegaard says it best: "Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards."

It's true one might on rare occasion experience a moment that sears the heart, chisels itself there, but it takes years for one to find the words to articulate the precious value of that moment.

At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony's load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, -
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is - that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love's domain
Never again.

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

Thanks for again sharing some wonderful poems and also articulating some of my own thoughts on memory, to which I have an ambiguous relationship, much like yours, it seems. You may be aware that the theme of the UK's upcoming National Poetry Day (2 October) is Remember. I suppose this is tied into the fact that it's a hundred years since the start of the war, but it is being interpreted in a wide variety of ways, as the themes always are. So this feels very timely.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: As always, I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

As you may have surmised from my recent posts, I am in the midst of another visit to Hardy. As the years progress, I only become more and more grateful for, and amazed at, this wonderful man and poet. My appreciation for him seems to deepen each year.

Your comments help me to understand some of the reasons (there are so many!) why this is so. As you suggest, the relationship between his technical poetic craft and the emotions embodied in his poems is marvelous. This is something I notice more and more each year. As you know, early critics (and some still today) wrongly describe his craft as being, say, "amateur" or "awkward." But he knew exactly what he was doing.

And your point about there being "as much in this little poem as in one of his novels" is perfect. I suspect that this is why Hardy always felt that poetry was his true calling. As you know, this is only one of hundreds of poems by him which fit your description.

Finally, a technical note on the rhyme scheme of the poem. I defer to you on that, since I am not competent to say. As you are probably already aware, the best, most thorough discussion of the technical aspects of Hardy's poetry (and of his amazing store of knowledge of English prosody) is Dennis Taylor's Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody (Oxford University Press 1988).

Taylor's book contains a "Metrical Appendix" which sets forth all of the stanza forms and rhyme schemes used by Hardy in his poems, together with possible historical antecedents. Taylor indicates (page 241) that "The Rift" may have its source in a poem by John Freeman titled "The Winds," which appeared in Freeman's Memories of Childhood and Other Poems (1919). (I have posted a few poems by Freeman previously.) Being curious, I looked it up today. Here is the first stanza of Freeman's poem:

In these green fields, in this green spring,
In this green world of burning sweet
That drives its sour from everything
And burns the Arctic with new heat,
That seems so slow and flies so fleet
On half-seen wing.

Thank you again for your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: As ever, thank you for your thoughts and your kind words.

As we have discussed in the past, Hardy is a never-diminishing source of pleasure, isn't he? I still have so many poems to read, and, at that same time, I love to revisit the old ones as well. Sometimes I think that I could subsist on his poetry alone!

Thank you for the lovely anecdote about your grandmother. It is wonderful how the slightest details come back at such times. And I agree with you that Stevenson's short poem captures the feeling at such time perfectly.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your insightful comments, and for sharing "At Castle Boterel."

Hardy's poems about Emma after her death are probably the most moving of his visitations to the past, aren't they? I agree with you that the final stanza of "At Castle Boterel" is amazing. A side-note: when Hardy writes "So sank I from my high sublime" in "The Rift," the scene in "At Castle Boterel" is likely what he is thinking of. (Which is probably one of the reasons why you chose to share it!)

Your point about memory is well taken: it does take years (decades) to begin to articulate the meanings of such moments.

Again, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Aykroyd: It's very nice to hear from you again.

From reading your blog, I know that you are fond of Hardy's poetry, so these poems are probably familiar to you. As you suggest, Hardy is perfect for the theme of "Remember," isn't he? Sometimes it seems that nearly all of his poetry is an exercise in recollection and remembrance, delightful and sad by turns.

As always, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for visiting.

bruce floyd said...

Perhaps the venerable Samuel Hynes, editor of the five-volume Oxford English Texts edition of "The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, sums up Hardy better than anyone else:

Hardy's poems are a record of how an honest old man came to terms with reality: with the actual, ordinary, rather humdrum dailiness of life, with the inevitable losses that time brings, and the irrecoverable nature of those losses; with the grief and regret that are the inevitable consequences of living in time, with a memory; and with his own approaching death. [Hardy's] poetry are not, I think, written for us, or for any imaginable audience; we overhear Hardy when we read him. What we hear is the unmediated voice of an old man, communing with himself; more than a kind of poetry, it is a way of enduring. The old man's road involves both honesty and craft: reality seen as it is, without consolations; but mastered and made endurable, through a fine and private art.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for the passage from Hynes, which is wonderful -- and right on the mark. I like his reference to Hardy as "an honest old man," since I think that Hardy's honesty is what makes him so attractive -- and timeless. (Although I might quibble with the "old man," since, as you know, Hardy wrote a fair amount of poetry in his younger years, but ended up not publishing it until he turned to poetry full time in the late 1890s.)

In a previous post, I quoted from an essay on Hardy by Thom Gunn, who writes wonderfully about Hardy's "sincerity" (contrasting him with Yeats in this regard). This issue of honesty and sincerity is quite important. It is why Hardy, Larkin, and Edward Thomas are my favorite poets: absolute honesty can always be expected from them.

I also particularly like Hynes's statement: "The old man's road involves both honesty and craft." As I suggested in a response to an earlier comment, critics (both contemporary with Hardy and later) tend to patronize him in terms of his poetic craft. But they are completely mistaken. His poetry was indeed, as Hynes says, "a fine and private art."

Again, thank you very much. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

I came a little late to this, one of your best posts. And as often Anonymous (the really anonymous one, is it always the same person?) has a wonderful addition: At Castle Boterel.
Of course another wonderful memory poem, which my mother read to me in childhood, ET's Adlestrop.
Not only was I fortunate to have a mother who, however difficult otherwise, started when I must have been about six to recite from memory splendid poems to me.
I was also lucky enough to have as my professor of Freshman English Sam Hynes. He was a fresh PhD with wartime flying only a decade behind him, not the literary authority he has become since. We loved him.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Don't worry: nothing is ever too late here! It is always nice to hear from you.

You were indeed fortunate. It's wonderful that your mother read poetry to you when you were young. This no doubt has woven its way through your entire life.

I envy you having Samuel Hynes as your teacher. Who better to talk to you about Thomas Hardy? I'm sure you've read his The Pattern of Hardy's Poetry, which is one of the best books on the poetry (although perhaps a bit severe with Hardy -- in my view -- in a few places). And then, of course, there are his efforts in editing Hardy's poetry.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for your kind words about the post.