Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Autumn's Arc

Back in August, I mentioned a row of maple trees that I pass beside in my walks through a marina.  At that time, the trees provided one of the first hints of autumn, as did a small flock of Canadian geese that circled the shores of the Sound.

The trees are now half-empty.  The leaves that remain are a brilliant deep-red.  A wistful sight, of course.  But this week, grieving over the departed and departing leaves, I received an unexpected gift.  As I walked beneath the maples, I noticed the shapes of dozens of leaves on the sidewalk:  the remnants, in rusty-brown pigment, of leaves that have vanished in the wind, but which once covered the sidewalk in the rain.

These revenants seemed to lay the whole of the season before me in an arc, from the sun-struck red and green boughs of late August to the dark, bare branches and the fluttering red stragglers of October.  And ghost leaves on the ground beneath my feet.

  Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells.  All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields.  Flowers flourish everywhere.

Proust who collected time within
A child's cake would understand
The ambiguity of this --
Summer still raging while a thin
Column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia.  We give names --
Autumn and summer, winter, spring --
As though to unfasten from the mind
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing.

But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke;
I lean against my window fenced
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

Edward Waite (1854-1924), "The Autumn Road (Mitcham Woods, Surrey)"

The following poem registers a high reading on the Autumn Wistfulness Quotient.  Although it has appeared here before, it is a poem that deserves repeated visits.


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

The combination of lovely, exact particulars and evocative, ever-expanding images is marvelous.  On the one hand:  "dead leaves/On their way to the river/Scratch like birds at the windows/Or tick on the road."  Exactly.  On the other hand:  "the prisoners of infinite choice," "an afterlife/Of dead leaves,/A stadium filled with an infinite/Rustling and sighing," and "the heaven/Of lost futures."  Wonderful.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

Finally, a poem for the end of the arc.

                                        Autumn Ends

Lost in vacant wonder at how the months flow away in silence,
I sit alone in my idle hut, thinking endless thoughts.
An old man's cares, like these leaves, are hard to sweep away.
To the sound of their rustling I see autumn off once again.

Tate (pronounced ta-tay) Ryuwan (1762-1844) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

The traditional Chinese and Japanese poets tend to be fairly stoic, but this stoicism is combined with an absolute commitment to stating things exactly as they are.  Thus, we should not read any note of complaint or self-pity into Tate Ryuwan's poem (which is in the form of a kanshi, a poem written in Chinese by a Japanese poet, adhering to the strict rules of traditional Chinese prosody).  He is simply reporting how things are with him and with the World at the end of autumn.  The poem exhibits that distinctive quality of the best Chinese and Japanese poetry:  the leaves are not "symbols," nor are they a "metaphor" or an "allegory," yet the human world and the natural world become one and the same.  Or so it seems to me.

Edward Waite, "The Mellow Year Is Hastening to its Close" (1896)

Saturday, October 25, 2014


One of my afternoon walks takes me through a former army post (now a park) that is located on the bluffs beside Puget Sound.  During the Second World War, the post was a way-stop for those departing to the Pacific.  One stretch of the walk takes me along an abandoned road.  On the west side of the road a wide meadow slopes down to the Sound -- an expanse of glittering blue or flat grey, according to the weather.  On the other side, a meadow slopes upward to what was once the parade ground.

Each year I watch the meadows edge further and further into the road. During the summer, wild sweet peas move towards one another from either side.  The ever-present moss of this part of the world has worked its way into the cracks of the asphalt.  In their seasons, swallows, thrushes, and warblers skim across the meadow grasses.

How long before the road vanishes?  Will I be around to see it?

                    Rose Bay Willow Herb

The flower of our times, the gipsy of hedgesides
Has turned the squatter of bomb, demolition
And building sites, following machines
As the gull the plough.  Still in Cullen's Planting
It crowds the gaps in the system of blackberry bushes
And covers your coat in Autumn with the silken kisses
Of its seeds or on a windy day
Thousands of parachutes in exodus
Blow across Partridge Hill; it marches in lanes
Along the hedgesides most recently cleared.
But now in towns and cities, climbing heaps
Of dusty rubble and perching in cavities
Of broken walls, it sweeps to confrontations,
The Nature for ever at our cultured elbow,
Ready, should we make a fatal mistake,
To grow in the bulldozer's scoop and through the telly.

Stanley Cook, Woods Beyond a Cornfield: Collected Poems (Smith/Doorstop Books 1995).

H. C. Bryer
"79 1-2 High Street, Southampton, with Norman Chimney" (1950)

I do not offer my anecdote as some sort of metaphor for, say, Mortality, the Implacability of Time, or the Passage of Civilizations.  "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"  Or something like that.  No.  Rather, I am moved by the matter-of-factness with which the World goes about its business. The impassive persistence of life is a wonderful thing.

  River Colne at Wakefield Road, Huddersfield

Marshalled into Huddersfield
Between the BR Manchester line and A62,
The Colne sidesteps the jumble and nearly new
At the centre of the fifteenth largest town,
Swings wide and steers towards this bridge,
Under trees that were it left alone
A hundred years, it would undermine.
Along this reach, over its series of weirs
It combs itself clean from centuries' pollution
By people's lives.  The semi-darkness squeezes
Out a solitary duck, white
And veering about at the head of its wake.

Stanley Cook, Ibid.

Eliot Hodgkin, "The Haberdashers' Hall, 8 May 1945" (1945)

"Earth never grieves!"  (Thomas Hardy, "Autumn in King's Hintock Park.") This is not a cry of despair.  It is simply a statement of lovely fact.  The sweet peas have now shrivelled and fallen.  But they are far from finished. The warblers, thrushes, and swallows have departed.  But only for a spell. The moss goes on doing what it does.  We humans fit in somewhere.  For a spell.

                    Wood by a Road

Scythed grass and nettles blanch at the side
Of the seedy pomp of the late summer wood
And in the misfortunes of a risky world
I admire how these trees succeed.

Oaks and silver birches cup their hands
Above the sparking flowers of creeping plants
Never intending to emerge to the wind
Or the damp that drags the cobwebbed bent-grass down.

No birds sing but a thrush with a worm
Tacks the path with his prints in a running stitch
And a rabbit puts a distance between us;
Moths stay painted on hawthorn bushes.

All that a wood can do, the wood has done:
The dark green leaves extend their hands
Indicating nothing left to hide;
Everything prospers on the brink of decline.

Stanley Cook, Ibid.

Gerald Gardiner (1902-1959), "Norfolk Brick Kiln"

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dover Beach. Calais. Swanage.

We never know which poems will set us on the road to loving poetry.  I was a late starter:  it was not until my freshman year of college that I began to sit up and take notice.  The following poem was one of my early favorites. Reading it now, I can see how a young person of an "impressionable age" could be swept along by it.  And here's the odd truth:  I am still swept along by it.

                    Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!  for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold, New Poems (1867).

It is the final stanza in particular which catches the fancy of the young. Who, at the age of 18 or 19, could resist its romanticism and its "Ah, World!" melancholy?  But, as I read the poem 40-odd years later, I cannot say that I find anything in it that rings hollow.  I still find it to be moving and essentially true.  Does this mean that I am in a state of perpetual adolescence?  (Something not uncommon among those of us who are members of a certain generation.  Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not ashamed to admit that I have owned a number of baseball caps. However, I have never worn any of them backwards.  But I remain quite fond of "Dover Beach.")

On the other hand, "the breath of the night-wind" now attracts me more than, say, "where ignorant armies clash by night."  The historical drama has lessened.  We have all, alas, seen more than enough of that.  But, "the breath of the night-wind?"  That seems just right.

John Everett (1876-1949), "Worbarrow Bay, Dorset"

Arnold likely wrote "Dover Beach" in late June of 1851, after his marriage on June 10 of that month.  Approximately half a century earlier, in August of 1802, William Wordsworth visited Calais, just across "the straits" mentioned in the third line of Arnold's poem.  While there, Wordsworth wrote the following untitled sonnet.

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven is on the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder -- everlastingly.
Dear Child!  dear Girl!  that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807).

Wordsworth (accompanied by his sister Dorothy) had gone to Calais to meet his daughter Caroline, who he had never seen.  She had been born in December of 1792 to Annette Vallon.  The Wordsworths spent the month in Calais with Caroline and Annette.  The four of them often walked along the shore.

More than one scholar has suggested that "Dover Beach" may be an echo of (or a response to) Wordsworth's sonnet.  The verbal parallels lend credence to these speculations.  As does the contrast between the spiritual certainty of Wordsworth and Arnold's meditation on the fate of "the Sea of Faith."

William Dyce, "Pegwell Bay, Kent -- A Recollection of October 5th, 1858"

My visit to these two poems was prompted by my coming across this poem by Thomas Hardy last week.  Hence, after Dover Beach and Calais, we shall make an excursion to Swanage.

                         Once at Swanage

The spray sprang up across the cusps of the moon,
        And all its light loomed green
        As a witch-flame's weirdsome sheen
At the minute of an incantation scene;
And it greened our gaze -- that night at demilune.

Roaring high and roaring low was the sea
        Behind the headland shores:
        It symboled the slamming of doors,
Or a regiment hurrying over hollow floors. . . .
And there we two stood, hands clasped; I and she!

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

The poem is a recollection of the time when Hardy and his first wife Emma lived briefly in Swanage in the early years of their marriage.  The moon has a somewhat disquieting aspect in the poem, which is not unusual in Hardy's poetry.  Thus, for instance, in "At Moonrise and Onwards" he describes it as having "turned a yellow-green,/Like a large glow-worm in the sky."  Not exactly a romantic image.

William Rothenstein, "Nature's Ramparts" (1908)

Finally, a footnote to "Dover Beach" in the form of a poem by W. B. Yeats.

   The Nineteenth Century and After

Though the great song return no more
There's keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.

W. B. Yeats, Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932).

I have always presumed that Yeats had "Dover Beach" in mind when he wrote this, but I have never researched the point.  Today I checked A New Commentary on The Poems of W. B. Yeats (Macmillan 1984) by A. Norman Jeffares, but he does not mention "Dover Beach" in his annotations to the poem.  Instead, he quotes a March 2, 1929, letter from Yeats to Dorothy Shakespear (the wife of Ezra Pound) in which Yeats mentions that he has been reading William Morris' "The Defence of Guenevere."  Yeats writes:  "I have come to fear the world's last great poetical period is over."  He then includes the four lines of "The Nineteenth Century and After" in the text of the letter.  Still, it is hard not to see a parallel between Yeats' "the rattle of pebbles on the shore/Under the receding wave" and Arnold's "the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back."

Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)

Friday, October 17, 2014

"An Honest Man Who Will Never Lie To Me"

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."  Thomas Hardy (notebook entry, May 29, 1871), in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).

Perhaps this will sound hyperbolic, but I believe that what distinguishes Thomas Hardy's poetry from that of any other poet is its humanity.  No poet has ever written with such honesty, fellow-feeling, and compassion about what it means to make one's way through life, and to confront one's mortality.

These qualities do not become truly evident until one moves beyond the well-known anthology pieces and immerses oneself in Hardy's poetry as a whole.  I have been reading his poetry for nearly forty years, and I will probably never work my way through all of his 900 or so poems.  But, over time, my admiration for him, both as a poet and as a human being, continues to deepen.

Hardy's genius (there is no other word for it) is often best revealed in the small, out-of-the-way poems one unexpectedly encounters while, say, searching out an old favorite.

       The Peace-Offering

It was but a little thing,
Yet I knew it meant to me
Ease from what had given a sting
To the very birdsinging

But I would not welcome it;
And for all I then declined
O the regrettings infinite
When the night-processions flit
        Through the mind!

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

I will go out on a limb and suggest that most of us have experienced the feelings expressed by Hardy in this poem.  Perhaps we have experienced them from both sides at different times in our lives.  Although I have read this poem many times, part of me still shies away from reading it because of the feelings I know it will evoke.  "O the regrettings infinite/When the night-processions flit/Through the mind!"  Enough said.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

Of Hardy, Thom Gunn writes:

"[T]hroughout, there is always the feeling that he is trying to see things as they are, whether it is an abstract term like Pity or a physical thing like the way the heat of noon breathes out from old walls at midnight; he is never trying to falsify either them or his emotion about them -- and so much the worse if the poem ends up in bathos or flatness.  Ezra Pound more than once praises Hardy for his insistence on immersing himself in his subject. And this is well said, for the immersion leaves him no room for pretence, or for anything other than honesty.  Much of what sustains me through the flatter parts of the Collected Poems is this feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me."

Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1985), page 105.

          Just the Same

I sat.  It all was past;
Hope never would hail again;
Fair days had ceased at a blast,
The world was a darkened den.

The beauty and dream were gone,
And the halo in which I had hied
So gaily gallantly on
Had suffered blot and died!

I went forth, heedless whither,
In a cloud too black for name:
-- People frisked hither and thither;
The world was just the same.

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

Hardy's poem was no doubt prompted by a specific experience in his life, which we could perhaps tease out (as critics have tried to do) by examining the biographical details.  But that is not what makes the poem resonate with us.  Once more, I would suggest that most of us have experienced in our own lives exactly what Hardy relates in the poem.  Consider one possible instance among many:  have you ever walked out from a hospital into the sunlight after someone you love has died?

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Thom Gunn again:

"[W]e never for a moment doubt that Hardy means what he says.  We make much of 'sincerity' nowadays . . . And clearly sincerity is a value, even though one rather difficult to define -- maybe it is one of the ultimate values in literature.  But there are different ways of being sincere, and I suggest that Hardy's is a supremely successful one.
     The critics who have written on Hardy's poetry spend an inordinate time in complaining about the badness of his bad poems.  The bad poems are certainly there, but though they may be boring or ridiculous they are never pretentious.  By contrast, if you take the collected Yeats, you feel the strain of all that rhetorical striving in the minor poems, and it is only in the best of Yeats, and not always then, that he is able to free himself from the rhetoric.  Rhetoric is a form of pretence, of making something appear bigger or more important than you know it is.  Well, you never feel, even in Hardy's most boring and ridiculous poetry, that he is pretending -- he is never rhetorical.  And there are not many poets of whom this can be said."

Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry, pages 104-105.

       Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

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

James Paterson, "Borderland" (c. 1896)

The cumulative impact of Hardy's poetry is expressed well by C. H. Sisson:

"No single poem, and no short selection, can give an adequate impression of the weight of Hardy's achievement as a poet.  The sheer bulk of closely-felt impressions, covering sixty years or more of his writing life, is without parallel in our literature.  He is no Wordsworth, hardening as the years go on, and the last poems are as lively as, and deeper than, the first.  The whole oeuvre is united by temperament and by a style which did not harden simply because it was nothing more than the words and rhythms that it was natural for Hardy to use, in his persistent impulse to set down the truth as he saw it."

C. H. Sisson, English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (Methuen 1981; first published in 1971), page  30.

                       Nobody Comes

     Tree-leaves labour up and down,
          And through them the fainting light
          Succumbs to the crawl of night.
     Outside in the road the telegraph wire
          To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travellers like a spectral lyre
          Swept by a spectral hand.

     A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
          That flash upon a tree:
          It has nothing to do with me,
     And whangs along in a world of its own,
          Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate I stand again alone,
          And nobody pulls up there.

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

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Center Of The Universe

A point of clarification at the outset:  this post is not about the grandiosity, narcissism, and solipsism of human beings, whether in the public or the private sphere.  Thus, for instance, there will be no discussion of heads of state or politicians.  Their world has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry, and never will.  As Patrick Kavanagh says: "Leave Them Alone."

This is merely a meditation (of sorts) upon three poems that have swum into view by happenstance.  I'm afraid that I will not be able to provide any all-encompassing conclusions.  My only thought is that it would be nice to see the three of them together.

Here is a start:  now and then a time comes when we need to stop in place, in a clearing, and have a look around.  That space is the center of the universe.  But -- and this is crucial -- the person standing in that space is most assuredly not the center of the universe.  In fact, he or she is an infinitesimal speck.  So, what does one make of this realization?

Terrick Williams (1860-1936), "Amiens"

       Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

Because the explication of the poetry of Wallace Stevens is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over the "meaning" of this poem.  No need to afflict ourselves with that. Let's just say that, given Stevens' belief that the exercise of Imagination upon Reality is what defines us as human beings, the identity of the jar seems fairly clear.  The jar would thus seem to be a beneficent thing.

Yet consider the final stanza.  Perhaps, after all, the jar is not fecund, as is Tennessee.  In the end, it is nothing more than "a port in air."  Maybe "the slovenly wilderness" is perfectly fine just as it is.  As I have noted previously, Stevens seemed to come around to this view -- grudgingly and by degrees -- in his last years.  But he never abandoned Imagination.  At times each of us needs to place a jar at the center of the universe, "port in air" or not.

Terrick Williams, "Clouds and Lagoons, Venice"

Stevens can be exasperatingly recondite and abstract.  The following poem brings us back to earth.  Quite literally.

                                The Glow-Worm

The pale road winds faintly upward into the dark skies,
And beside it on the rough grass that the wind invisibly stirs,
Sheltered by sharp-speared gorse and the berried junipers,
Shining steadily with a green light, the glow-worm lies.

We regard it; and this hill and all the other hills
That fall in folds to the river, very smooth and steep,
And the hangers and brakes that the darkness thickly fills
Fade like phantoms round the light and night is deep, so deep, --

That all the world is emptiness about the still flame
And we are small shadows standing lost in the huge night.
We gather up the glow-worm, stooping with dazzled sight,
And carry it to the little enclosed garden whence we came,

And place it on the short grass.  Then the shadowy flowers fade,
The walls waver and melt and the houses disappear
And the solid town trembles into insubstantial shade
Round the light of the burning glow-worm, steady and clear.

Edward Shanks, The Queen of China and Other Poems (1919).

I am reminded of fireflies and hedgehogs and octopuses in pots beneath the sea. There they are:  each of them at the center of the universe, each of them peaceful and entire.  And without a trace of grandiosity, narcissism, or solipsism.

Terrick Williams, "Amiens"

Finally, I'm not quite sure what to make of this.  But I have a sense that it belongs with the other two poems.

                                   To a Coin

Cold and stormy the night I sailed from Montevideo.
As we rounded the Cerro,
I threw from the upper deck
a coin that glinted and winked out in the muddy water,
a gleam of light swallowed by time and darkness.
I felt I had committed an irrevocable act,
adding to the history of the planet
two endless series, parallel, possibly infinite:
my own destiny, formed from anxieties, love and futile upsets
and that of that metal disk
carried away by the water to the quiet depths
or to far-off seas that still wear down
the leavings of Saxon and Viking.
Any moment of mine, asleep or wakeful,
matches a moment of the sightless coin's.
At times I have felt remorse,
at others, envy
of you, existing, as we do, in time and its labyrinth,
but without knowing it.

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

Perhaps my sense of its belonging here comes from the last two lines in particular:  "you, existing, as we do, in time and its labyrinth,/but without knowing it."  The center of the universe is forever sliding away beneath our feet.

Terrick Williams, "St Michael's Mount, Cornwall" (1933)

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Why is it that certain poems dwell within us for years?  Have no fear!  I am not planning to launch into a meditation on "the art of poetry" or "the wellsprings of creativity."  Nor am I going to go anywhere near "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  Discussions of that sort give me the willies.  Ditto with poems about poetry and poems about the writing of poetry.  Please, poetasters, desist!

No, this is a matter of happenstance and good fortune.  It also has something to do with, say, everything that has happened to you in your life up until the day you encounter a poem for the first time.  Oh, yes, and the season.  We mustn't forget the season.

                           Moonlit Apples

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
     A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
     Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
     And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
     On moon-washed apples of wonder.

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

I cannot recall when I first came across "Moonlit Apples."  Twenty years ago?  Thirty?  (I had best stop there, lest I disappear down a narrowing, darkening tunnel.)  I suspect that I found it in Georgian Poetry: 1918-1919. I have a copy of that volume beside me as I write this, and there it is at page 50.  But I may have happened upon it in another anthology.  I'm not certain.  However, I do remember my mounting wonderment and excitement as I read it for the first time.  And I am humbled, and grateful, to say that those feelings have never left me.

Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), "Florence, Evening" (1896)

I have intentionally sought not to pick apart what makes "Moonlit Apples" -- at least for me -- beautiful.  As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers know, my oft-stated basic principle is this:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Yet here I am writing about poems. And I will no doubt violate my principle by suggesting that the following poem has something to do with what makes "Moonlit Apples" -- or any other poem or work of art -- beautiful.

                    Note on Moonlight

The one moonlight, in the simple-colored night,
Like a plain poet revolving in his mind
The sameness of his various universe,
Shines on the mere objectiveness of things.

It is as if being was to be observed,
As if, among the possible purposes
Of what one sees, the purpose that comes first,
The surface, is the purpose to be seen,

The property of the moon, what it evokes.
It is to disclose the essential presence, say,
Of a mountain, expanded and elevated almost
Into a sense, an object the less; or else

To disclose in the figure waiting on the road
An object the more, an undetermined form
Between the slouchings of a gunman and a lover,
A gesture in the dark, a fear one feels

In the great vistas of night air, that takes this form,
In the arbors that are as if of Saturn-star.
So, then, this warm, wide, weatherless quietude
Is active with a power, an inherent life,

In spite of the mere objectiveness of things,
Like a cloud-cap in the corner of a looking-glass,
A change of color in the plain poet's mind,
Night and silence disturbed by an interior sound,

The one moonlight, the various universe, intended
So much just to be seen -- a purpose, empty
Perhaps, absurd perhaps, but at least a purpose,
Certain and ever more fresh.  Ah!  Certain, for sure . . .

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

As I have noted in previous posts, the poetry of Wallace Stevens' final years displays an acceptance of -- and love for -- the World as it is, with less of an insistence on asserting the primacy of the Imagination over Reality.  Of course, he never surrendered entirely.  After all, writing poetry was for him the quintessential activity of the Imagination.  One can see this tug-of-war take place in "Note on Moonlight," which was published less than a year prior to his death at the age of 75.

The final stanza is, I think, one of the most moving things that Stevens ever wrote.  "Intended so much just to be seen" is wonderful.  And how about that last line?

Harold Speed, "The Alcantara, Toledo, by Moonlight" (1894)

The following poem appears on the page facing "Moonlit Apples" in John Drinkwater's 1917 collection Tides.  They make a lovely pair.

               Out of the Moon

Merely the moonlight
Piercing the boughs of my may-tree,
Falling upon my ferns;
Only the night
Touching my ferns with silver bloom
Of sea-flowers here in the sleeping city --
And suddenly the imagination burns
With knowledge of many a dark significant doom
Out of antiquity,
Sung to hushed halls by troubadours
Who knew the ways of the heart because they had seen
The moonlight washing the garden's deeper green
To silver flowers,
Falling with tidings out of the moon, as now
It falls on the ferns under my may-tree bough.

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

Terrick Williams, "Quiet Twilight, Honfleur" (c. 1922)

As I have noted on more than one occasion, Japanese and Chinese poems often help to put our longer-winded English lyrical apostrophes into perspective.

     Autumn's bright moon,
However far I walked, still afar off
     In an unknown sky.

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 388.

     Down from the mountain,
The moon
     Accompanied me,
And when I opened the gate,
The moon too entered.

Kotomichi (1798-1868) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 388.

Albert Goodwin, "Salisbury"

Sunday, October 5, 2014


The Greek Anthology is, to a great degree, a chronicle of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), woven through with a gentle and stoic thread of admonition:  Live well.  But be ever aware of That which awaits us all.  In other words, it is the perfect volume to peruse during the heart of autumn.  Doing so this week, I came upon this:

All human things are subject to decay;
And well the man of Chios tuned his lay,
"Like leaves on trees the race of man is found."
Yet few receive the melancholy sound,
Or in their breasts imprint this solemn truth;
For hope is near to all, but most to youth.
Hope's vernal season leads the laughing hours,
And strews o'er every path the fairest flowers.
To cloud the scene no distant mists appear,
Age moves no thought, and death awakes no fear.
Ah, how unmindful is the giddy crowd
Of the small span to youth and life allow'd!
Ye who reflect, the short-lived good employ,
And while the power remains, indulge your joy.

Simonides (translated by J. H. Merivale), in Robert Bland (editor), Collections from The Greek Anthology, and from the Pastoral, Elegiac, and Dramatic Poets of Greece (1813), page 185.

This sort of poem or epigram appears again and again in The Greek Anthology.  I readily confess that I cannot get enough of such things.  Mere truisms?  Yes, of course!  And wonderfully so.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

The third line of Merivale's translation of Simonides' poem is taken from Alexander Pope's translation of Book VI of The Iliad.  "The man of Chios" (line 2) is Homer, who, by tradition, was thought to have been born on Chios, an island in the Aegean Sea in the region once known as Ionia. Which brings to mind (please pardon the digression) these lines from C. P. Cavafy's lovely poem "Ionic": "That we've broken their statues,/that we've driven them out of their temples,/doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead./O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,/their souls still keep your memory."  (Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)

Here is Pope's line in context:

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground:
Another race the foll'wing spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are past away.

Here are the same lines of Homer as rendered by William Cowper:

For, as the leaves, such is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind.  One generation meets
Its destined period, and a new succeeds.

James Sheard (1866-1921), "The Pride of Autumn"

All of this leads me inevitably to one of my favorite poems by Thomas Hardy, a poem that calls to me each year.  The poem has appeared here before, but, as long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers know, we need to circle back now and then to see how these things look in a new light.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909).

I wonder:  did Hardy have Homer in mind when he wrote this?  Part of me hopes that he did not.  I love the thought of these two great poets arriving at the same place on their own, centuries apart.

Among the many beauties of the poem, this, in particular, always moves me:  "Earth never grieves!"

Andrew McCallum, "Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest" (1877)

I will close with two down-to-earth codas to this seasonal, generational, and cosmic falling and rising, rising and falling.

     Blowing from the west,
Fallen leaves gather
     In the east.

Yosa Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 362.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 364.

James Bateman, "Lulington Church" (1939)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


And so we move into October.  Leaves are the first thing that comes to mind, at least for me.  Those bearers of joy and wistfulness.  There can never be enough of them, can there?

Placing so much value on them now, wishing them to stay longer as they disappear, I wonder whether I gave them the attention they deserved from spring through summer.  "First known when lost."  Or something like that.

I am reminded of two lines from a poem by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) about fallen cherry blossoms in spring:  "When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call./The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms."  Burton Watson (editor and translator), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

                      Economic Man

He would have liked to find a use for leaves,
So simple a thing it seemed, so many of them
Flying and falling, going to waste and wet
And stopping up the gutters and the drains
Or drying in the still November days
Until swept into heaps, gone up in smoke
As if all summer's shade had never been.

And so he dreamed, and idly enough,
For many summers, many falls, until
His spell upon the earth was done, come time
To fall, while the useless leaves still came and went,
And the green had told him nothing, nor the sere,
That he might leave for men to profit by.

Howard Nemerov, War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now (University of Chicago Press 1987).

Funny thing about leaves:  they have no agenda; they pay us no mind. Imagine being nothing but yourself.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

However many years pass, my heart-of-autumn feeling will always come from 50 or so years ago, in the lost land of Minnesota.  The earthy scent that comes after jumping into a pile of raked-up oak leaves.  At dusk, looking down the street at neighbors standing beside their smoky piles of burning leaves.  No, we shan't have any of that anymore, shall we? Someone's idea of "Progress":  an autumn world without the smell of burning leaves.

   Gathering Leaves

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

"And who's to say where/The harvest shall stop?"  Is this one of those mischievous Frostian endings?  Is it an expression of joy at the inexhaustible beauty of the wondrous World around us?  Or is it a reminder of mortality?

Alexander Brownlie Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (c. 1917)

All of this abundance comes our way unbidden, unasked for.

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryokan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (Weatherhill 1977).

As I suggested in a recent post:  gratitude ought to be with us always. "Who's to say where the harvest shall stop?"

William Samuel Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)