Saturday, November 22, 2014


The approach of winter has got me to thinking about the small things I will miss until spring returns.  The sudden whirr-vibration of a hummingbird -- often unseen, only heard and felt.  The kingdoms of sand painstakingly constructed by ants along the seams in the sidewalks.  Butterflies "flying crooked" (as Robert Graves puts it).  The list is not exhaustive.

And -- ah, yes -- the criss-crossing threads left by spiders as they traverse the gardens and the meadows.

            Early Morning

The path
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.

The path
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider's web.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press 2000).

Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "Near Leatherhead" (c. 1939)

The following poem is often characterized as one of Robert Frost's "dark" poems.  But this whole "dark Frost" versus "light Frost" dichotomy has always puzzled me.  There is darkness and lightness throughout his poetry, beginning with the first poem in his first volume.  And often in the same poem.  Here, then, is a meditation upon a spider going about its business. Dark?  Light?  Both?  Neither?  


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? --
If design govern in a thing so small.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

All that build-up about a calculating, perhaps malevolent, perhaps heartless Universe, and then the sleight-of-hand in the final line.  But it is not as though Frost has not warned us:

It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.

Robert Frost, In the Clearing (1962).

Christopher Nevinson, "The Weir, Charenton"

I have never been able to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for the poetry of Walt Whitman.  I appreciate his cosmos-wide, visionary energy.  But he wears me out.  It is all at too high a pitch.  He reminds me of one of those insistent, often over-educated, self-styled prophets one occasionally encounters in public spaces.  But there are times when he lowers the register a bit.

                    A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect             them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).

Whitman being who he is, "O my soul" necessarily makes an appearance. But the conceit here is a lovely one.  And the particulars are lovely as well: "filament, filament, filament" and "the ductile anchor," for instance.

Christopher Nevinson, "A Winter Landscape" (1926)

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often commented upon the knack of Chinese and Japanese poets for getting to the heart of the matter in as few words as possible, with no loss of depth or intimation.  To wit:

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world.

Saigyo (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

Christopher Nevinson, "View of the Sussex Weald" (c. 1927)


Fred said...


Great poems! Two haiku by Janet Lewis, or so it appears to me.

I once nominated Whitman's poem as the Official Poem of the WorldWideWeb.

In another of my posts, I put up Frost's "Design" with Hardy's "Hap." Fascinating comparison as one decries chance and the other design in a malevolent universe.

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you once again Mr Pentz, for broadening my poetic horizons. All were delightful and I now know that Frost had a light and a dark side which I wasn't aware of before . . .

I love the Janet Lewis, and the Saigyo piece for being so specific. Frost's poem had me looking up Heal-All and it is our own Self-Heal, which I have never seen in white (although Betony frequently presents itself thus along our lanes). His words are wonderful "a flower like a froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite." I will now be pondering the Universe's interference in this scenario.

Whitman's analogy is a good one and could easily be used to describe how one finds love . . .

Wonderful paintings as always - I have developed quite an appreciation of the 30s style of painting in the last year or two.

I trust you are not snowed in yet . . .

Sam Vega said...

Many thanks for this. I had never heard of Janet Lewis, but I liked the subtlety with which she pointed out the interdependence of light and that which it falls upon. We never "see" light until it is reflected off something, and the gossamer image brings this out beautifully.

I was reminded of a famous letter by Gilbert White, who was surprised one morning to find gossamer had appeared so thickly as to impede the hunting of his dogs, and which fell from the skiy all day.
"...nobody in these days doubts but that they are the real productions of small spiders which swarm in the fields in fine weather in autumn, and have a power of shooting out webs from their tails so as to render themselves buoyant, and lighter than air. But why these apterous insects should take that day such a wonderful aerial excursion, and why their webs should at once become so gross and material as to be considerably more weighty than air, and to descend with precipitation, is a matter beyond my skill..."
(Letter to the Hon. Daines Barrington, June 1775)

The paintings are also lovely. Is Nevinson the same artist who did rather shocking pictures of warfare? In these pastoral scenes, he is spot on. The darkness and decay of the earth, and yet the beautiful light in the sky. I drive across that Wealden landscape every day. I think I can even recognise one of the hills: Blackdown, which used to be owned by Tennyson.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: As has happened before, you and I are on the same page: I had the same thought about Lewis's poem! I considered making an observation along those lines, but I thought the post was getting too long, so I left it out. But I agree with you completely.

You're right: "A Noiseless Patient Spider" would be an apt Official Poem for the Internet.

I agree that "Design" and "Hap" make for a good comparison. "Hap" was one of the first poems by Hardy that I ever read, and ever since my initial reading of it (too long ago to contemplate!) I have carried the phrases "crass Casualty" and "purblind Doomsters" around with me! Such is the impact of Hardy.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: You're welcome, and thank you for the kind words. I'm pleased you liked the poems by Lewis and Saigyo, which are lovely, I think. I agree with you about the paintings of the 1930s (a style which is evident throughout the decades before and after as well). As a long-time visitor of the blog, you are aware of my fondness for the artists of that time.

No snow here, although I would love to see some! Our climate is a great deal like that of England and Wales: damp but temperate, with only occasional snow, which doesn't stay for long. Having grown up in snow country (Minnesota), I still miss it.

It is always good to hear from you. Thank you very much for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for the passage from Gilbert White, which is new to me. I've never encountered gossamer on that scale! Other than coming across excerpts over the years, I have never gotten around to reading him, which I need to rectify.

It's nice to think that you pass through the landscape of Nevinson's paintings. I'll do some looking into Blackdown, which I wasn't aware of.

And, yes, that is the same Nevinson. I was surprised to discover this side of him as well, having first come to know him through his paintings of the First World War. As you suggest, the contrast is amazing. But then I think of Paul Nash, John Nash, Stanley Spencer, and others, who exhibit the same contrast.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I always look forward to hearing from you.

Fred said...


I think "Hap" was the first poem by Hardy that I had read also.

b. Floyd said...

Below is a short poem by Emily Dickinson. I assume she sees a web a spider has spun upon a flower. Frost sees this sight, or one much like it, and canters off one way. Dickinson takes a different tack. Of course both poets are correct.

The purpose of the web is not to demonstrate beauty. If the spider is an artist it is because a human imagination makes him one.

(Blake says that we must see through the eye, not with it.)

One would be naïve to believe that Dickinson did not understand the rapacity of nature.

Strange world we live in, an ambiguous one. A few days ago on my walk I saw a hawk plummet from the sky, bolting from the blue. I watched it, thrilled to it as did Hopkins, and even after the hawk clutched some small creatures in its cruel talons and took flight again, I marveled at the beauty of it all.

The fairest Home I ever knew
Was founded in an Hour
By Parties also that I knew
A spider and a Flower --
A manse of mechlin and of Floes --

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I suppose that this may be because it is the third poem in his first volume (Wessex Poems), and thus comes at the start of later editions of his Collected Poems and Selected Poems. Or because it is one of the poems by him that is frequently anthologized.

Along with "Hap," "Neutral Tones" (which comes a few poems later in Wessex Poems) was another of the first poems I read of his. Both of them set the stage for two of his major preoccupations, don't they?

Thanks for the follow-up comment.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for sharing the poem by Dickinson, which is lovely. "A manse of mechlin and of Floes" is very nice. (I had to look up "mechlin," which was new to me: a type of lace originating in Belgium.)

As always, thank you for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of your post on the spider, I thought of how the human imagination can find beauty in the spider's web, in spite of what the web is designed for. It seems we seek ways to get around the terrible truth of the human condition--and perhaps we should.

Would you allow me a few comments? I hope they are relevant to your most recent post.

From Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death": "Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked in blood for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer."

Becker goes on to say that we find ways to get around the truth, manufacturing techniques "to make the world other than it is, legislate the grotesque out of it, inaugurate a 'proper' human condition."

You will remember in Frost's "For Once, Then Something" how Frost notes our deepest desire that the universe respond to us as we do to it. We want "counter-love." We never get it. But that doesn't prevent us from trying to change the indifference of the universe.

I thought of the below Roethke poem in which a man tries to add mercy to a merciless world.

Three times in my life I have stopped while I was driving to remove a creeping turtle slowly crossing the road. Why? I'm not sure. Could it be an attempt to refute the indifference of the world in which we find ourselves?

The Meadow Mouse

In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves, Little lizard-feet,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.

Now he's eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his bottle-cap watering-trough--
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.


But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm? -- To run under the hawk's wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,--
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments -- there is a great deal there to consider.

I have never read anything by Becker, but he doesn't mince words, does he? My initial thought is that he is perhaps a bit harsh on us humans: the urge not to stare Death daily in the face is part of human nature, but he makes it sound like a pathology.

Mind you, I think that an awareness of our mortality helps us to appreciate life. As you know, I am quite fond of poems that remind us of our fate, from the ancient Greeks, to the classic Chinese and Japanese poets, and onward to English poetry. I realize that I am responding to small passages from Becker's work, but I don't think that we are as oblivious to our condition as he makes out. My sense is that his comments are directed at "popular culture." However, I think that poets and philosophers, and those who read them, have always been well aware of the nature of our life, and our ultimate fate.

And thank you for the lovely poem by Roethke, which is new to me. For some reason, I was reminded of Larkin's sad experience with the hedgehog in "The Mower," and the poem's final lines: "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."

Thank you again for your thoughts.

Bruce Harrow said...

Your site was recommended to me by a friend about a month ago. Since then I have come back to it more and more frequently with increasing pleasure.

I, too, have never heard of Janet Lewis until now. Thank you for posting Early Morning. As has been said already the poem is about the interdependence of light and the natural world. But what I like particularly about the poem is its structure, the two identical stanzas (and their identical shapes) perfectly reflect this interdependence. In all great poetry form and content are indivisible and no more so than here.

Even more to my liking is the use of internal rhyme across the two stanzas (lines 2 & 6) to reinforce that interdependence, how the spider makes through the air and how the light takes through the air to fall on the web and thus reveal the beauties of the natural world. How banal a poem it would be with a conventional verb (moves, flies etc) describing the movement of light.

Bruce Harrow

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Harrow: Thank you very much for the kind words. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you will continue to visit.

I'm pleased to have helped bring Janet Lewis to your attention. It is a wonderful poem. And your observations add greatly to my appreciation of it. It is marvelously constructed, isn't it? Your comment about "form and content" being "indivisible" in great poetry is perfect.

Thank you again. I hope you will return.

Anonymous said...

Says Whitman: "I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

No one seemed as indolent and inert as Whitman. His imagination was not idle.

As I have grown older I have lost my enthusiasm for Whitman, but he has moments when his poetry is masterful. I find section 15 of "Song of Myself" a marvel. Who could disparage this line:"The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles it's wild ascending lisp"?

So Whitman loafed by the construction site, but he was not loafing: he was inviting his soul.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Whitman does arouse mixed emotions, doesn't he? But I wholly agree with you about Section 15: it is absolutely wonderful. At the risk of sounding parochial, it is also a beautiful embodiment of the USA, and of Whitman's love for it. But, at the same time, it is a beautiful embodiment of the energy of existence itself, transcending the USA. It is moments like these that call me back to his poetry, despite my mixed emotions. And I agree with you entirely: he may have ostensibly seemed to be an "idler" or a "loafer," but he was acutely observing and imagining and transforming all the while.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.