Thursday, December 31, 2015


The other day, as I sat idly musing, it occurred to me that the number of New Years that I have greeted thus far in my life now greatly exceeds the number of New Years that I am likely to greet from here on out.  Yes, I know:  Lovely thought, that!  But this is the sort of thing that happens when one idly muses.

We duly note observations such as these and then continue on.  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  (Philip Larkin, "Aubade.")  Or something along those lines.

I am reminded of a haiku that I try to revisit each year around this time (and which appeared here a year ago).

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

Blyth suggests that Jokun is referring to the Japanese tradition in which, commencing at midnight on New Year's Day, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the unhealthy desires that we should strive to rid ourselves of.  This makes perfect sense.  Despite "implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death," there is always room for improvement while time -- ever tolling, of course -- remains.

We have no choice in the matter, do we?  Hence, no whining is allowed. But we ought to remain mindful.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Stromness Harbour"

The particulars of day-to-day life in the Orkney Islands provide the basis for the poems and prose of George Mackay Brown.  But there is nothing parochial about the Orcadian world of which he writes.  It stretches from the present back to the arrival of the Vikings, and then disappears into a mysterious (apparently Celtic) pre-history.

It is a time-bound, yet timeless, world.  Although most of us have never been there, it is our World.

                         Gray's Pier

I lay on Gray's pier, a boy
And I caught a score of sillocks one morning

I laboured there, all one summer
And we built the Swan

A June day I brought to my door
Jessie-Ann, she in white

I sang the Barleycorn ballad
Between a Hogmanay star and New Year snow

The Swan haddock-heavy from the west --
Women, cats, gulls!

I saw from the sea window
The March fires on Orphir

I followed, me in black
Jessie-Ann to the kirkyard

I smoke my pipe on Gray's pier now
And listen to the Atlantic

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Gray's Pier is located in Stromness on Mainland, in the Orkney Islands. "Sillocks" are young coalfish.  "Hogmanay" is the Scots word for New Year's Eve.  Orphir is a parish on Mainland.

Donald Morrison, "Stromness Pier" (1993)

The following poem provides the other half of the Orcadian world. (Although the phrase "the other half" is perhaps too reductive and too simplistic:  the "halves" are interwoven and inseparable.  Earth and stone and sea and sky.)


Come soon.  Break from the pure ring of silence,
A swaddled wail

You venture
With jotter and book and pencil to school

An ox man, you turn
Black pages on the hill

Make your vow
To the long white sweetness under blessing and bell

A full harvest,
Utterings of gold at the mill

Old yarns, old malt, near the hearthstone,
A breaking of ice at the well

Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

In another poem, Brown writes of "Crossings of net and ploughshare,/Fishbone and crust."  ("Black Furrow, Gray Furrow," in Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (Hogarth Press 1971).)

Ian MacInnes, "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Truth and beauty reside in the particulars of everyday life.  "Gray's Pier" and "Countryman" are emblematic of the wondrous way in which George Mackay Brown gives us his Orkney world exactly as it is, in its lovely (and sometimes harsh) particulars, while transforming it into the World in which we all live.  And die.

"A mystery abides.  We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person's attempt to make a meaning of life and time. Death is certain; it may be that the dust of good men and women lies more richly in the earth than that of the unjust;  between the silences they may be touched, however briefly, with the music of the spheres."

George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing: An Autobiography (John Murray 1997), page 181.


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from the sequence "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," Voyages.

Stanley Cursiter, "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Friday, December 25, 2015


Some people complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas.  Others complain that the season has been appropriated by the tackiest tendencies of "popular culture."  These complainers take themselves, and the World, far too seriously.

This is not surprising, for we live in the Age of Mewling.  A great number of people are aggrieved or offended by . . . well, nearly everything.  "Trigger warnings" and all that.  What a sad way to live.

The World is what it is.  On a daily basis, we have to pick and choose. Gratitude, not complaint, ought to be the basis for making our choices.

And there is always a larger context.

          Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Ben Nicholson, "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

Nothing about Christmas offends me.  In fact, most everything about the season delights me.  I'm happy to hear Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas" for the ten-thousandth time.  Likewise Perry Como and "Home for the Holidays" and Andy Williams and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

I love the fact that people string lights on their houses. What could be more wonderful than walking at night through a neighborhood that is full of colorful lights?  It makes me feel that all is right with the World -- like the sound of lawn mowers in the distance on a sunny Spring afternoon.  There is a great deal of truth and beauty in these simple human impulses.  Why not festively light up the night at the darkest time of the year?

                      Blind Noel

Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.

Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out.  In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (Bloodaxe Books 1995).

Harold Bush, "The Christmas Tree" (1933)

Yes, there is always a larger context.  "We are folded all in a green fable." There is absolutely nothing to complain about.

          Maeshowe:  Midwinter

Equinox to Hallowmas, darkness
     falls like the leaves.  The
     tree of the sun is stark.

On the loom of winter, shadows
     gather in a web; then the
     shuttle of St Lucy makes a
     pause; a dark weave
     fills the loom.

The blackness is solid as a
     stone that locks a tomb.
     No star shines there.

Then begins the true ceremony of
     the sun, when the one
     last fleeting solstice flame
     is caught up by a
     midnight candle.

Children sing under a street
     lamp, their voices like
     leaves of light.

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Maeshowe  (also known as "Maes Howe") is a chambered tomb located on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Islands.  It was constructed in 2800 B. C. (or thereabouts).  In the twelfth century, it was broken into by Vikings, who left behind runic inscriptions.

The entrance passage to the structure is aligned so that, at the time near and after the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine against the rear wall of the tomb.  Yuletide.

"A merry Christmas, friend!"

Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As a child growing up in this country, one of the first birds that one is likely to encounter is the robin.  Perhaps this is why I retain a particular fondness for them.  Call me sentimental, but I think of the successive generations of robins I have shared the World with as lifelong companions:  wordless, but not unspoken.

As we enter another winter together, I worry about them.  How will they fare in the cold and the wind and the gloom?  But there they are in the garden, flitting about in the trees and bushes, hopping along the paths, going about the business of being robins.

                 A Robin

Ghost-grey the fall of night,
        Ice-bound the lane,
Lone in the dying light
        Flits he again;
Lurking where shadows steal,
Perched in his coat of blood,
Man's homestead at his heel,
        Death-still the wood.

Odd restless child; it's dark;
        All wings are flown
But this one wizard's -- hark!
        Stone clapped on stone!
Changeling and solitary,
Secret and sharp and small,
Flits he from tree to tree,
        Calling on all.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (1933).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

De la Mare was writing in England, so his robin is a European robin, not an American robin -- a flycatcher, not a thrush.  But I like to think that the two share certain affinities:  a charming stolidity, staying power, and a cheerful stoicism.

And they both have their songs and notes.  Different songs and notes, of course, but perhaps the underlying message is the same.  "Synonyms for joy."

                 The Robin

Poor bird!  I do not envy thee;
Pleas'd in the gentle melody
     Of thy own song.
Let crabbed winter silence all
The winged choir; he never shall
     Chain up thy tongue:
          Poor innocent!
When I would please my self, I look on thee;
And guess some sparks of that felicity,
          That self-content.

When the bleak face of winter spreads
The earth, and violates the meads
     Of all their pride;
When sapless trees and flowers are fled,
Back to their causes, and lie dead
     To all beside:
          I see thee set,
Bidding defiance to the bitter air,
Upon a wither'd spray; by cold made bare,
          And drooping yet.

There, full in notes, to ravish all
My earth, I wonder what to call
     My dullness; when
I hear thee, pretty creature, bring
Thy better odes of praise, and sing,
     To puzzle men:
          Poor pious elf!
I am instructed by thy harmony,
To sing the time's uncertainty,
          Safe in my self.

Poor Redbreast, carol out thy lay,
And teach us mortals what to say.
     Here cease the choir
Of ayerie choristers; no more
Mingle your notes; but catch a store
     From her sweet lyre;
          You are but weak,
Mere summer chanters; you have neither wing
Nor voice, in winter.  Pretty Redbreast, sing,
          What I would speak.

George Daniel (1616-1657), "Ode XXIII," in Alexander Grosart (editor), The Poems of George Daniel, Volume II (1878) (spelling modernized).

"That self-content."  Call me an anthropomorphizer, a practitioner of the Pathetic Fallacy, but "self-content" is one of the traits that I admire in the robin.  "A robin with no Christian name ran through/The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew."  "All it knew"?  Yes, perhaps.  But:  "I am instructed by thy harmony . . . teach us mortals what to say."

Beryl Sinclair, "Winter, Regent's Park" (1941)

When I was young, we were taught to look for "the first robin of spring." But it has always seemed to me that quite a few of them stick around through the winter.  Their red-orange breasts are a welcome sight amidst the dark days, and add to the gaiety should snow arrive.  (Although I suppose that a snowfall is not necessarily a cause for celebration in the Robin-World!)  Thus, I think of robins not just as harbingers of spring, but as year-long reminders of the constancy and continuity of the World that surrounds us, a World that calls for our attention in even its humblest manifestations.


Clouded with snow
     The bleak winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
     Alone sings now.

     The rayless sun,
     Day's journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
     Unearthly white.

     Thick draws the dark,
     And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
     Floats the white moon.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (1912).

Frederick Mitchell, "Greig Close in Winter" (1955)

Poets rhapsodize about nightingales and skylarks.  There are those among us who search the woods for cardinals, orioles, bluebirds, and others of bright plumage.  But the commonplace, quotidian robin deserves its own paean.  Please note that I do not use "commonplace" or "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.  After all, both words apply to each and every one of us, although we may like to believe otherwise.

We need to often remind ourselves of this:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

As I have noted here on more than one occasion, we are all in this together. We each have our offices to perform.  Who among us is the humblest?  Who among us is of importance?  Who knows?  None of us is in a position to render judgment.

                    To Robin Redbreast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this:
Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

"Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,/Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."  Not a bad way to spend eternity, communing with robins and thrushes.

John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)

Monday, December 7, 2015


I suspect that, by most people's standards, the speed at which I read poetry is slow and slothful.  As I have mentioned here in the past, I intentionally limit myself to one or two poems a day.  If a poem is lengthy, it may take me several days to finish it.  Thus, for instance, reading Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" will take me at least a week -- at 32 stanzas, four stanzas or so a day seems about right to me.

I am not stating this as a matter of pride, nor am I asking for plaudits.  This is simply the way it goes for me.  I need to mull things over.  I need to listen closely.  I need to let a poem sit.  I feel that I owe it to the poet and the poem to give them time and extended attention.

For the same reason, I return again and again to the old chestnuts.  I never tire of them.  Hence, the past few weeks I have been spending time with two of my favorite anthologies: The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner, and The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks.  The current century is of no interest to me.  I prefer to visit dear friends from long ago.

               The Coming of Good Luck

So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the sun-beams, tickled by degrees.

Robert Herrick, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1999).

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

In browsing through the two anthologies, it was nice to be reminded how little poetry has to do with current events.  Of course, there are exceptions: "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" (Charles Wolfe), "England in 1819" (Shelley, as self-regarding, disingenuous, and mendacious as ever), "The Convergence of the Twain" (Hardy), "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (Hopkins), for instance.  But these are few and far between. The general themes are, as one would expect, Love, Death, the Game of Life, the Beauty of the World.

This makes perfect sense.  Who wants poets to write about the passing happenstance of The News of the World?  Think of all the wasted emotion and energy some people devote to cultivating, and propounding, what they perceive to be the "correct" political, economic, and social views about what is "wrong" with the World, and how it ought to be fixed.  Think of all the utopian chimeras that these same people (left, right, and Martian) preoccupy themselves with on a daily basis.  They will never be happy.  For them, something will always be wrong with the World, something will always need to be fixed.  And they (totalitarians at heart) have appointed themselves to be the fixers.  Good luck with that.

I, on the other hand, believe that the World is perfect just as it is.  Are human beings perfect?  No.  Am I perfect?  Certainly not.  But the misery we create for each other is never going to disappear as the result of somebody concocting a grand theory about How We Should Live.  We are best advised to tend to our own soul, while being mindful, and careful, of the souls around us.  This is the true subject matter of poetry.

                    Magna est Veritas

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

Coventry Patmore, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1972).

David Macbeth Sutherland, "The Breakwater, Stonehaven Harbour" (1950)

I am simple-minded.  I need to be reminded of certain things over and over again.  Although I do not believe that it is the function of poetry to set out to instruct or edify, I do believe that a good poem can embody human truth -- the truth of what it means to make one's way through the World as a unique soul, touching, and touched by, others.

                            An Epilogue

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.

John Masefield, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse.

This is the sort of poem that I love to return to often.  Eventually, its truth gets through my thick skull, at least temporarily.  There are scores like this. Fortunately, the beauty of the poems is always there, regardless of my obtuseness.  Thus, returning to them is an everlasting delight.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Evening in Skye, Loch Carron, Highlands"

Gratitude in the midst of evanescence.  This is poetry's ultimate message to us.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam 

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse.  The title of the poem comes from Horace's Odes, Book I, Ode 4, line 15, and may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (University of Birmingham Press 2003), page 225.

Poetry shakes us by the shoulders, gently, and whispers in our ear:  Pay attention.  Live.

David Macbeth Sutherland, "Plockton from Duncraig" (1967)

Monday, November 30, 2015


While I was in Minnesota last week, I was able to take a walk through a marsh-dotted wood.  It was a dun-colored world, a world of (to borrow from Thomas Hardy) "neutral tones."  Unseen birds twittered and clucked off in the cattails, or along the floor of the forest.  Grey squirrels crossed the path in front of me, going about their preparations for winter.

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Kishū's haiku captures perfectly and beautifully how the world often makes itself known to us:  unexpectedly, and by degrees.  But we mustn't think of the crow as a "symbol" or a "metaphor" for the world's gracious appearance in our life.  As I have noted here before, we need to stop thinking so much. This whole thinking business is highly overrated.

An autumn evening.  A crow passes overhead in silence.  That's it.  Stop right there.

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

I haven't lived in the land of my birth for nearly fifty years, but the emotional essence of late November days in The Land of 10,000 Lakes still abides within me.  Those days can be dark and empty, but there is an undercurrent of expectation.

                   A Spell Before Winter

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October's flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land's voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Howard Nemerov, The Next Room of the Dream (University of Chicago Press 1962).

And thus the snow came a few times last week -- a lovely and welcome sight.  We all want to walk out into it.  Everything has changed.

Benjamin Leader, "Autumn in a Surrey Wood" (1902)

I know nothing about how to live.  And I possess no wisdom whatsoever. But, if one lives long enough, one eventually discovers that certain truisms are true.  One is well advised to pay attention to them.  Of course, there are those who think they are superior to these truisms:  "I'm more complex and nuanced than that!"  No, you are not.  You are a human being with a soul. Join the crowd.

As a member of that blessed and miraculous group, here's your first truism: you have no control.  Now you can begin to live.

                           The Consent

Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone:  the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars?  What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender?  and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time,
If a star at any time may tell us:  Now.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (University of Chicago Press 1975).

Benjamin Leader, "A Worcestershire Farm" (1900)

The tendency to think and think and think goes hand in hand with the illusion of control.  On an autumn evening, a crow passes silently overhead.  A small miracle.  We have no say in the matter.  Our response should be gratitude.

     Fallen leaves
Come flying from elsewhere:
     Autumn is ending.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), p. 355.

Fallen leaves arriving from elsewhere.  What a wonder.

Benjamin Leader, "November" (1884)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Perspective, Part Sixteen: Continuity

I am writing this at twilight on the north shore of Lake Superior.  The water stretches away, like a sea, to the south.  Enough sunlight remains to turn the scattered, oval-shaped clouds out over the lake a pinkish-grey, set against a pale blue background.  The sky on the far horizon is pinkish-grey as well, with a tinge of yellow.  In the distance, small snow squalls move across the lake from north to south, grey curtains of flurries sweeping over the dark water.

Here is how I had thought to begin this post:  "The News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently."  But then I looked out the window.

Yes, the News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently. Witnessing evil at work is always dispiriting.  (Yes, evil.  There is no other word for it.  And any attempt to "explain" or "contextualize" or "excuse" or "justify" it on theological, historical, political, economic, or any other grounds makes one complicit in the evil.)

I looked out the window and I thought of a gift I came across earlier this week:

An Epitaph upon a Young Married Couple,
               Dead and Buried Together

To these, whom Death again did wed,
This grave's their second marriage-bed;
For though the hand of Fate could force,
'Twixt soul and body, a divorce,
It could not sunder man and wife,
'Cause they both lived but one life.
Peace, good reader.  Do not weep.
Peace, the lovers are asleep.
They, sweet turtles, folded lie
In the last knot that love could tie.
And though they lie as they were dead,
Their pillow stone, their sheets of lead,
(Pillow hard, and sheets not warm)
Love made the bed; they'll take no harm;
Let them sleep:  let them sleep on,
Till this stormy night be gone,
And the eternal morrow dawn;
Then the curtains will be drawn
And they wake into a light,
Whose day shall never die in night.

Richard Crashaw, Delights of the Muses (1648).  A side-note:  the final line has an alternative reading:  "Whose day shall never sleep in night."

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

Fortunately for us, evil can never harm Richard Crashaw and his young married couple, for they are imperishable.  I harbor no illusions:  evil, and its ever-mutating tyrants of a day, will always be with us.  But so will Crashaw's "sweet turtles."

Think of it:  after nearly four centuries, you and I have just helped to preserve and prolong the beauty of Crashaw's poem and the love of the young married couple.  Evil has no say in the matter.  The continuity of the human spirit is something that evil can never understand, and can never touch.

Who could have known that, three hundred years after Richard Crashaw, Philip Larkin would come along?

            An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth.  The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

I have talked about "An Arundel Tomb" in a previous post, so I will not discuss its particulars on this occasion.  But I do wonder whether Larkin knew of Crashaw's poem.  Given his knowledge of English poetry, he likely did.  However, I prefer to think that Larkin knew nothing of the "young married couple," the "sweet turtles," and that he independently echoed, and provided his own lovely elaborations upon, Crashaw's theme.

Roger Fry, "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

Those who traffic in evil are members of the human race, but they know nothing of humanity.  They know nothing of love.  They cannot conceive of, and thus can never harm, the uncountable and continuous streams of life, seen and unseen, that the rest of us create and perpetuate on a daily basis.

     Love Lives Beyond the Tomb

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew!
     I love the fond,
The faithful, and the true.

     Love lives in sleep,
The happiness of healthy dreams:
     Eve's dews may weep,
But love delightful seems.

     Tis seen in flowers,
And in the morning's pearly dew;
     In earth's green hours,
And in the heaven's eternal blue.

     Tis heard in Spring
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
     On angel's wing
Bring love and music to the mind.

     And where is voice,
So young, so beautiful, and sweet
     As Nature's choice,
Where Spring and lovers meet?

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, the flowers, and dew.
     I love the fond,
The faithful, young and true.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

"Peace, good reader."

Roger Fry, "The Church at Ramatuelle" (1922)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Leaves, Again

When I was growing up in Minnesota, we used to preserve fallen leaves by ironing them between two sheets of wax paper.  Otherwise, a saved leaf was likely to one day crumble to dust in your hands.

I remember searching for the "perfect" leaf to preserve.  Oak.  Elm.  Maple. Birch.

Where have all those wax-encased leaves gone to?  In a box or a scrapbook somewhere.  But where?

Green thoughts, the feel of pink -- remembered in the mind;
but those spring splendors, like dreams, are gone beyond recall.
The whole village in yellow leaves, I shut the gate, lie down --
once again the year is already deep into fall.

Kashiwagi Jotei (1763-1819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Dead Leaves" (1963)

The fallen leaves are always reminding us of . . . something.  In the grand scheme of things, they whisper to us of transience and mortality.  No surprise there.  But they get more personal than that.  I suspect that most of us could trace a path back into our past leaf by leaf, if we wished.

Do you remember that day in the park, and the leaf that you saved so as to never lose the memory of that moment?  Who knows how far back we could go?

               A Musician's Wife

Between the visits to the shock ward
The doctors used to let you play
On the old upright Baldwin
Donated by a former patient
Who is said to be quite stable now.

And all day long you played Chopin,
Badly and hauntingly, when you weren't
Screaming on the porch that looked
Like an enormous birdcage.  Or sat
In your room and stared out at the sky.

You never looked at me at all.
I used to walk down to where the bus stopped
Over the hill where the eucalyptus trees
Moved in the fog, and stared down
At the lights coming on, in the white rooms.

And always, when I came back to my sister's
I used to get out the records you made
The year before all your terrible trouble,
The records the critics praised and nobody bought
That are almost worn out now.

Now, sometimes I wake in the night
And hear the sound of dead leaves
Against the shutters.  And then a distant
Music starts, a music out of an abyss,
And it is dawn before I sleep again.

Weldon Kees, in Donald Justice (editor), The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (University of Nebraska Press 1975).

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

The trees are nearly empty.  The wind and the rain have seen to that.  Now is when our companionship with leaves begins in earnest.  Call me sentimental (I am unapologetically guilty), accuse me of embracing the Pathetic Fallacy (guilty again), but, as the fallen leaves stroll with me down the street, the wind coming up from behind us, I cannot help but feel that we are in this together.

                                        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 Ryūwan (1762-1844) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Chestnut Leaves" (1973)

When it comes to leaves, and their place in our lives, a visit to Robert Frost is a necessity.  He knew a thing or two about this topic.  In his simple-sly way he says it all.

              In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

"A crowd, a host, of golden daffodils . . . fluttering and dancing in the breeze."  (William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.")

The arc of our life is not complicated:  dancing flowers and fallen leaves.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Four Dead Leaves" (1961)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Region November"

As the years pass, I find myself growing fonder of November.  I have tended to think of the month as merely the somber denouement of the brilliance of October, with its mix of exhilaration and wistfulness, beauty and loss. November is pitched at a lower key.  An end has been reached.  Our task seems to be "what to make of a diminished thing."  (Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird.")

             The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).  The poem was written in the closing years of Stevens's life.

A side-note:  long-time (and much-appreciated!) visitors to this location may recognize "The Region November" as my "November poem."  I beg your indulgence for our annual visit to the poem:  I'm afraid I will never tire of it.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

But is November in fact "a diminished thing"?  I have been taking my daily walks at dusk.  In this part of the world, we are entering into a greyness that will persist, with occasional bright intervals, until spring arrives.  Yet the November twilight's combination of grey sky and gold-leaved trees is enchanting.  And, thanks to our rain and our mild climate, the grassy meadows remain green, with palls of fallen gold leaves spread beneath the trees.  We walk within a shimmering grey-gold-green evening light.  Yes, there is a somberness.  But, if we have suffered a loss, the loss is not without compensations, nor is it irrevocable.

Others may feel differently.  We have all felt and heard the winds of November, and shivered.  Well, yes, of course:  mortality.

                  November Eves

November Evenings!  Damp and still
They used to cloak Leckhampton hill,
And lie down close on the grey plain,
And dim the dripping window-pane,
And send queer winds like Harlequins
That seized our elms for violins
And struck a note so sharp and low
Even a child could feel the woe.

Now fire chased shadow round the room,
Tables and chairs grew vast in gloom:
We crept about like mice, while Nurse
Sat mending, solemn as a hearse,
And even our unlearned eyes
Half closed with choking memories.

Is it the mist or the dead leaves,
Or the dead men -- November eves?

James Elroy Flecker, in J. C. Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (Martin Secker 1916).

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

Stevens is more equivocal than Flecker:  the trees in "The Region November" are "saying and saying" something.  I suspect that mortality crossed Stevens's mind, but he seems open to other possibilities as well:   "A revelation not yet intended."

I am reminded of "The River of Rivers in Connecticut":  "The river is fateful,/Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman."  As is so often the case with Stevens, it is movement that is important:  the movement back and forth between our Imagination and the World, a World in which "the mere flowing of the water is a gayety,/Flashing and flashing in the sun."  The trees "swaying, swaying, swaying" are part of that World.  Charon the ferryman is not present.

Flecker, on the other hand, is quite clear as to what November eves and November winds betoken.  As is Thomas Hardy.

             A Night in November

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

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

Those talking trees again:  "And a tree declared to the gloom/Its sorrow that they were shed."

James Paterson, "Borderland" (1896)

There is also this in November:  the sliver of yellow sky just above the horizon, beneath the wall of grey clouds, as the sun sets.  I saw it earlier this week.  Again, the loss we have suffered, the loss that brings us to November, is not without compensations, nor is it irrevocable.  That is what the evanescent, luminous sliver of yellow sky says.

            There's Nothing Like the Sun

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me:  November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang.  But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said --
Or, if I could live long enough, should say --
"There's nothing like the sun that shines today."
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"When All The World Is On The Wane"

The waning of autumn's magnificence brings sadness with it.  But it also provides an annual lesson in how to gracefully accept loss and change. The story is an ancient one:  we would not be sad if we had not loved.

                             Last Week in October

     The trees are undressing, and fling in many places --
     On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill --
     Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
     A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.

     A spider's web has caught one while downcoming,
     That stays there dangling when the rest pass on;
     Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming
     In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon,
Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon.

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

A side-note:  Hardy's likening of the "dangling" leaf to "a suspended criminal" is not a mere fancy on Hardy's part:  he witnessed two public hangings in his teenage years.  His second wife Florence's "biography" of him (which is, in fact, an autobiography written by Hardy) contains the following passage:

"One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o'clock at Dorchester.  He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town.  The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone façade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing, and the crowd below, being invisible at this distance of three miles.  At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

"The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy's hands.  He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man; and he crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious.  It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows."

Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), pages 32-33.

At another time, Hardy described the hanging of the woman:

"I went there really for a jaunt.  The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure (it was a woman) turning slowly round on the rope.  And then it began to rain, and then I saw -- they had put a cloth over the face -- how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it.  That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from the tree.  It was curious the two dropping together."

Elliott Felkin, "Days with Thomas Hardy," Encounter (April 1962) (italics in original), reprinted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 202-203.

Edward Waite, "The mellow year is hastening to its close" (1896)

Christina Rossetti's poetry is characterized by a continual movement back and forth between loss and faith.  What gives this movement its beauty and its emotional resonance is the overarching and underlying love that links the two together.  This love is both mortal and Immortal.  In her poetry, mortal love is ever threatened by loss.

                 An October Garden

In my Autumn garden I was fain
     To mourn among my scattered roses;
     Alas for that last rosebud which uncloses
To Autumn's languid sun and rain
When all the world is on the wane!
     Which has not felt the sweet constraint of June,
     Nor heard the nightingale in tune.

Broad-faced asters by my garden walk,
     You are but coarse compared with roses:
     More choice, more dear that rosebud which uncloses
Faint-scented, pinched, upon its stalk,
That least and last which cold winds balk;
     A rose it is tho' least and last of all,
     A rose to me tho' at the fall.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

I would categorize "An October Garden" as one of Rossetti's secular poems: it is an Elizabethan-sounding contemplation on the transient beauty of the rose, a symbol of love and life and loss.  In contrast, she also wrote a large number of devotional poems in which she articulates her belief that religious faith can provide solace for, and can ultimately redeem, the inevitable loss of mortal love and life.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

In her finest poems, Rossetti combines the secular and the religious into something that is uniquely evocative, enigmatic, and beautiful.  In her collection A Pageant and Other Poems, "An October Garden" is immediately followed by this:

                      "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
            Scentless, colourless, this!
     Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
                  Thus with our bliss,
          If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
            Sooner, later, at last,
     Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
                  An end locked fast,
          Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, Ibid.  The source of the title is the Book of Jeremiah 8:20 (King James Version):  "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."  Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (edited by R. W. Crump and Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001), page 960.

As in "An October Garden," the fading of a final rose is the ostensible subject of the poem.  But "'Summer Is Ended'" operates in an entirely different realm.  The second stanza is breathtaking:  to my mind, it is one of those rare combinations of feeling, thought, and verbal music that remind us of why we read poetry.

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

For Thomas Hardy, religious consolation is not an option that is available to assuage our losses:  we live in a universe of "Crass Casualty" and "purblind Doomsters."  ("Hap," Wessex Poems and Other Verses.)

               The Later Autumn

Gone are the lovers, under the bush
          Stretched at their ease;
          Gone the bees,
Tangling themselves in your hair as they rush
          On the line of your track,
          Leg-laden, back
          With a dip to their hive
          In a prepossessed dive.

Toadsmeat is mangy, frosted, and sere;
          Apples in grass
          Crunch as we pass,
And rot ere the men who make cyder appear.
          Couch-fires abound
          On fallows around,
          And shades far extend
          Like lives soon to end.

Spinning leaves join the remains shrunk and brown
          Of last year's display
          That lie wasting away,
On whose corpses they earlier as scorners gazed down
          From their aery green height:
          Now in the same plight
          They huddle; while yon
          A robin looks on.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles.

I'm particularly fond of the robin at the end of the poem.  It brings to mind the wonderful birds that appear throughout Hardy's poetry, birds who observe (and often comment upon) the goings on of the World and the antics of its human inhabitants.  "Starlings on the Roof."  "The Darkling Thrush."  Another thrush in "The Reminder."  The thrushes, finches, and nightingales in "Proud Songsters."  The rook, the starling, and the pigeon in "Winter in Durnover Field."  To name but a few.

Hardy's birds signify both timelessness and transience.  As does the loss of autumn.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Friday, October 23, 2015


What a noisy world we live in!  For instance:  cell phone conversations conducted in public places.  I realize that this topic has by now become a cliché, but I think that it serves as a metaphor for all that is wrong with the Modern World:  not only noise, but also -- in no particular order -- impoliteness, obliviousness, and vacuity.

One would think that an ordinary human being could pass through airport security, sit in the waiting area at the departure gate, and ride a shuttle bus to a parking lot without feeling compelled to carry on a phone conversation in the presence of strangers.  Quite often, that does not seem to be the case. And, thanks to the wonders of technology (Progress!), we have an added attraction:  animated mugging for the video camera during the conversation.  Intimacy.  (An aside:  "All Aboard," a fine poem by Charles Tomlinson on this phenomenon, has appeared here previously.)

I confess:  I am conservative by nature and by choice.  Call me a hypocrite (given, for instance, the technology that I am using at this moment), but I never presume that change is a good thing.  Here is one of my curmudgeonly standards of judgment:  I am skeptical of any technological "innovation" that reduces the time and space available for serenity and reverie.

Calm is the morn without a sound,
     Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
     And only thro' the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
     And on these dews that drench the furze,
     And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:

Calm and still light on yon great plain
     That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
     And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
     These leaves that redden to the fall;
     And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
     And waves that sway themselves in rest,
     And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep.

Alfred Tennyson, Poem XI, In Memoriam (1850).

Lines 15 and 16 are, I think, very moving:  "And in my heart, if calm at all,/If any calm . . ."

Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)

Give technology an inch and it will take a mile.  Technological "advancement" is often sold on the premise that it will be "labor-saving," thus purportedly freeing us up to devote more time and energy to higher human pursuits.  I'd say that this was true of the invention of the wheel.  Is it true of the invention of Twitter or Facebook?

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Blackwell 1969).

Aeroplanes.  Radio.  Twitter.  Facebook.

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

John Glover, "Thirlmere" (c. 1820-1830)

I am not a Luddite.  And I do not intend to repair to a yurt out on the windswept steppes of Mongolia any time soon.  (Besides, I suspect that cell phone service and wireless Internet have preceded me there.)  I am not angry with, nor do I consider myself superior to, those who avail themselves of these dazzling technologies.  I simply wonder:  why?  To what end?  Do we realize what we are giving up?

Technology ("information technology" in particular) promotes hyperactivity and distraction.  In contrast, poetry is born of reverie and concentration, and in turn promotes reverie and concentration in the reader.  The choice is ours.

   The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm.  The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

Benjamin Leader, "Glyder Fawr, Snowdon Range" (1881)

Three variations on the theme of calm.  Alfred Tennyson would like us to know about the calm he felt as he awaited the arrival by ship of the body of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died young in Vienna.  Robert Frost would like us to know about the calm that abides in the presence of those dark interstellar spaces that so often haunted him.  "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars . . ."  Wallace Stevens would like us to know about Imagination and Reality, how they can -- no, must -- flit back and forth in a calm world, in a quiet house, if we wish to be truly human.

Cell phones and Twitter and Facebook have nothing to do with any of this.


Out in the deep wood, silence and darkness fall,
down through the wet leaves comes the October mist;
     no sound, but only a blackbird scolding,
          making the mist and the darkness listen.

Peter Levi, Collected Poems 1955-75 (Anvil Press 1984).  A side-note:  the four-line "alcaic" stanza is said to have been invented by the Greek poet Alcaeus, and is often used by Horace in his Odes.

"Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself.  For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.

John Glover, "View of Patterdale, Westmorland" (1817)

Friday, October 16, 2015


I was born in Minnesota, and I spent the first eleven years of my life there.   Looking back, I think of those years as a vanished deciduous world, a world of oaks and elms and birches and maples.

This week I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  I have no connections with this part of the country, but I feel that I have returned to my lost deciduous world.  Nostalgia?  Sentimentality?  Of course.  I always choose nostalgia and sentimentality over modern irony.

In this fair country, the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn is among the fairest of the fair.  A 400-mile ribbon of road running up near the sky, it alternates between leafy tunnels and breathtaking vistas (a cliché, but no other phrase suffices).


As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.  Was there oil
For the machine?  It was
The vinegar in the poets' cup.

The tins marched to the music
Of the conveyor belt.  A billion
Mouths opened.  Production,
Production, the wheels

Whistled.  Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.

R. S. Thomas, H'm (Macmillan 1972).

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

I resolved to travel light on this trip.  I brought only two pocket-size books of poetry, both anthologies:  The Faber Book of Reflective Verse (Faber and Faber 1984), compiled by Geoffrey Grigson, and Zen Poems (Everyman's Library 1999), compiled by Peter Harris.  Earlier this week, I came across this in the former:

Perplex'd with trifles thro' the vale of life,
Man strives 'gainst man, without a cause for strife;
Armies embattled meet, and thousands bleed,
For some vile spot, which cannot fifty feed.
Squirrels for nuts contend, and, wrong or right,
For the world's empire, kings ambitious fight,
What odds? -- to us 'tis all the self-same thing,
A Nut, a World, a Squirrel, and a King.

Charles Churchill, from "Night: An Epistle to Robert Lloyd" (1761).

Yesterday I walked through the woods of the North Carolina Arboretum, which lies beside the Blue Ridge Parkway, just south of Asheville.  As I have noted here in the past, I admire those who can rattle off the common names, as well as the Latin binomial names, of flora and fauna. I am usually content to remain ignorant, and to simply look.  But, in my deciduous mood, I stopped to read the tree identification markers that are posted at intervals along the trails.

Yes, "a Nut, a World, a Squirrel, and a King."  The message of the Kings (who come in various guises) and of their Worlds (calculated to distract) is, in essence, this:  "Sell your repose."  Yet, all around us, uncountable and everlasting, offering the real message, are these (to name but a few):

Black oak, white oak, bitternut hickory,
Mockernut hickory, hemlock, white pine,
Chestnut oak, Virginia pine, black cherry,
Red maple, sourwood, tuliptree.

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

As I walked through the Arboretum, I could hear the sound of acorns dropping to the ground.  Squirrels and their nuts.  But I didn't think of Charles Churchill's lines.  There was no striving or contending.  It was only the deciduous world being itself, going about its annual, timeless business.

                       The Dependencies

This morning, between two branches of a tree
Beside the door, epeira once again
Has spun and signed his tapestry and trap.
I test his early-warning system and
It works, he scrambles forth in sable with
The yellow hieroglyph that no one knows
The meaning of.  And I remember now
How yesterday at dusk the nighthawks came
Back as they do about this time each year,
Grey squadrons with the slashes white on wings
Cruising for bugs beneath the bellied cloud.
Now soon the monarchs will be drifting south,
And then the geese will go, and then one day
The little garden birds will not be here.
See how many leaves already have
Withered and turned; a few have fallen, too.
Change is continuous on the seamless web,
Yet moments come like this one, when you feel
Upon your heart a signal to attend
The definite announcement of an end
Where one thing ceases and another starts;
When like the spider waiting on the web
You know the intricate dependencies
Spreading in secret through the fabric vast
Of heaven and earth, sending their messages
Ciphered in chemistry to all the kinds,
The whisper down the bloodstream:  it is time.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (University of Chicago Press 1975).

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

Standing at one of the "overlooks" on the Blue Ridge Parkway beneath infinite blue, with millions of green, gold, and red trees stretching off for hundreds of miles in every direction, one's best course of action is to keep silent.

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It's like an echo
     resounding through the mountains
          and off into the empty sky.

Ryōkan (translated by Steven Carter), in Peter Harris (editor), Zen Poems (Everyman's Library 1999).

George Vicat Cole, "Autumn Morning" (1891)

Friday, October 9, 2015


Autumn is always the same:  each year we make the same outward and inward passage.  The quickening rise to brilliance.  The inevitable denouement (which is known from the start).  Bittersweet and pensive wistfulness.  Wistful and bittersweet pensiveness.  Pensive and wistful bittersweetness.  We know autumn well.  Or so it seems.

Autumn is never the same:  you are not who you were last autumn.  And who was the person who passed through that long-vanished autumn, x years ago?  That never-to-be-forgotten autumn?  Only a few wispy revenants remain.

            On Inishmaan
            (Isles of Aran)

In the twilight of the year,
Here, about these twilight ways,
When the grey moth night drew near,
Fluttering on a faint flying,
I would linger out the day's
Delicate and moth-grey dying.

Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
Should enfold me, and release
Some old peace to dwell with me.
I would quiet the long crying
Of my heart with mournful peace,
The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).

Samuel Palmer, "The Weald of Kent" (c. 1833)

"The twilight of the year."  Perfect.  But, as Symons suggests, for all of the loss that attends it, autumn -- like twilight -- can be a source of peace.  Yet it is a peculiar sort of peace:  a combination of exhilaration and sadness, the two of them changing places from moment to moment or, quite often, present together at the same time.
                 Into the Twilight

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

W. B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

I confess that I love this sort of thing.  Unashamedly, unapologetically, and without irony.  What a wrong turning the 20th century was.

Samuel Palmer, "The Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)

Yeats, Symons, and the other poets of the Nineties are in their element when it comes to twilight and autumn.  Hence, as one might expect, autumn twilight brings them to the very heart of the matter:  shadows, fleeting gleams, hopeless love, lost love, murmuring waters, mist, dreams, desires, the moon-washed sea . . .

              Autumn Twilight

The long September evening dies
In mist along the fields and lanes;
Only a few faint stars surprise
The lingering twilight as it wanes.

Night creeps across the darkening vale;
On the horizon tree by tree
Fades into shadowy skies as pale
As moonlight on a shadowy sea.

And, down the mist-enfolded lanes,
Grown pensive now with evening,
See, lingering as the twilight wanes,
Lover with lover wandering.

Arthur Symons, London Nights (1895).

Like Yeats, I would love to live in a "grey twilight" world.  Like Symons, I would love to "linger out the day's/Delicate and moth-grey dying."  Is this quaint daydreaming, mere escapism?  It depends upon what one thinks of the 21st century.

Samuel Palmer, "The Timber Wain" (c. 1833)

Yeats wrote the following poem on the other side of the fin de siècle.  Does it reveal him as having moved beyond the twilight world of the Nineties and its ofttimes autumnal mood?

     The Coming of Wisdom with Time

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

W. B. Yeats, The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910).

Yeats is implying that a poem such as "Into the Twilight" involved some youthful "lying," some aesthetic "sway[ing]" of "leaves and flowers in the sun."  Yes, that poem, and many like it, were indeed a product of their time.

But what of "the root is one"?  I'm not at all certain that the ever-increasing rhetoric and self-dramatization of Yeats's later poetry brought him any closer to that root.  I think that, at their best, the poets of the Nineties are exactly right about "the root":  twilight and autumn (and, of course, autumn twilight) are indeed at the heart of the matter.  Withering into the truth.

Poetry and art do not "progress."  Has modern art "progressed" beyond Samuel Palmer?  Has contemporary poetry "progressed" beyond the poetry of the Nineties?

Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)