Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Love, What It Is"

What is love?  I haven't a clue.  I'd like to think that I have experienced it. But who really knows?

Call me a coward, but I tend to think that love is one of those experiences that are so intimately bound up with the essence of being human that they can only be lived, and any attempt to "explain" or "define" them is doomed to failure.  The nature of the soul, the notion of beauty, and the experience of death fall into the same category.

I am thus tempted to fall back upon my old standby in situations of this sort:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness) (1921).  Of course, Wittgenstein is only repeating what Taoist and Buddhist philosophers stated centuries ago. And what they say is true, you know.  (Contrary to what purveyors of Science would have you believe, all of this explaining we moderns engage in gets us nowhere.)

Claughton Pellew-Harvey, "View from the Studio" (1930)

Still, I believe that the subject of love can be approached aslant, which is where poetry comes in.  Hence, for example, I recently came across the following poems by Robert Herrick.

               Love, What It Is

Love is a circle that doth restless move
In the same sweet eternity of love.

Robert Herrick, Poem 29, Hesperides (1648).

Herrick's most recent editors suggest that the source of the poem is a traditional proverb.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 519.  They also cite two lines from a masque by Ben Jonson titled "Love's Welcome at Bolsover" as a possible source:  "Love is a circle, both the first and last/Of all our actions."  Ibid.  Finally, they reference a passage from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy:  "[Love is] circulus a bono in bonum, a round circle still from good to good; for love is the beginner and end of all our actions."  Ibid.

I next encountered this, in which "from good to good" (coincidentally or not) makes an appearance:

                         Upon Love

Love is a Circle, and an Endless Sphere;
From good to good, revolving here, and there.

Robert Herrick, Poem 839, Hesperides.

This helps to illuminate "Love, What It Is."  To some extent.  Both poems sound lovely, and feel as though they have the ring of truth.  After encountering them, I came across a third poem by Herrick which brings things together.

                    Of Love

How Love came in, I do not know,
Whether by th'eye, or ear, or no:
Or whether with the soul it came
(At first) infused with the same:
Whether in part 'tis here or there,
Or, like the soul, whole every where:
This troubles me: but I as well
As any other, this can tell;
That when from hence she does depart,
The out-let then is from the heart.

Robert Herrick, Poem 73, Hesperides.

"This troubles me" is marvelous.  And this is wonderful:  "Or whether with the soul it came/(At first) infused with the same."  As is this:  "like the soul, whole every where."  In this context, love as a circle, love as "an Endless Sphere," and love as a "sweet eternity" make perfect sense.  The final two lines are lovely, and bring us back to earth.

W. G. Poole, "Plant Against a Winter Landscape" (1938)

However, I do not wish to be reductive.  (And I do not think that Herrick is being reductive.  He simply provides us with beautiful possibilities.) Defining love destroys it.  As I say, it is best approached tangentially, at an oblique angle.

                    Love Without Hope

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Robert Graves, Poems (1927).

Few poems capture love's heart-pang and its internal airiness (that catch of the breath) as well as this.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."  Yes and no, experience teaches us.  But I do think that the feeling of an absence -- of a lack -- is another way of approaching love aslant.  Absence brings home what fullness is.  Or something like that.

Only the moon
high in the sky
as an empty reminder --
but if, looking at it, we just remember,
our two hearts may meet.

Saigyo (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).  The poem is an untitled waka (five lines, with a syllable count in Japanese of 5-7-5-7-7). It is prefaced by this note:  "When I was in retirement in a distant place, I sent this to someone in the capital around the time when there was a moon."  Ibid, page 123.

     The Land with Wind in the Leaves

Distance cannot remove me from that place.
I stand half a world away and here it is:
A green sway and roar -- blue, vast, open
And refusing always to let me depart.

     Yorkshire 1987 -- Tokyo 1992

sip (Tokyo/Seattle 1992).

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window" 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lanterns And Candles

The following poems share a common image:  a solitary gleam of light amid the darkness of night.  I am not clever enough to tie the poems together through explicative sleight of hand.  However, now that I see them here beside one another, I realize how well each poem reflects the distinctive sensibility, and preoccupations, of its maker.  Of course, this is a truism.  All poetry embodies the unique personality of its creator, doesn't it? But, in our age, I'm not so sure that this is as true as it once was.  People now obtain academic degrees in the writing of poetry.  This is not the sort of thing that encourages individuality.

               The Lantern Out of Doors

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
     That interests our eyes.  And who goes there?
     I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
     In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
     They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
     What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
     There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

Hopkins was a Jesuit.  Thus, the resolution of this poem comes as no great surprise.  However, I have the sense that Hopkins's religious convictions were the outcome of a tempestuous, hard-won struggle.  This introduces a human element into his poetry that is sometimes lacking in purely "religious" or "devotional" verse.  This is evident in the first eleven lines of the sonnet.  The repetition of "death or distance" is lovely.  His use of "out of sight is out of mind" is devastating, yet full of empathy and rueful truth. He knows full well that he too is a solitary lantern-bearer.  As are we all.

Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), "The Tower of London" (1897)

It is a matter of perennial academic dispute as to whether Wordsworth succeeded in his avowed intention to write poetry in "language near to the language of men" that is free of "poetic diction."  There is no denying that, particularly in his longer poems, the results were mixed.

Still, I think that he succeeded more often than he is given credit for, and this success goes far beyond the well-known anthology pieces.  This becomes clearer to me the deeper I delve into his poetry, which always reveals new, delightful surprises.  For instance, I recently came across this untitled sonnet.

Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress
Of a bedimming sleep, or as a lamp
Sullenly glaring through sepulchral damp,
So burns yon Taper 'mid a black recess
Of mountains, silent, dreary, motionless:
The lake below reflects it not; the sky
Muffled in clouds, affords no company
To mitigate and cheer its loneliness.
Yet, round the body of that joyless Thing
Which sends so far its melancholy light,
Perhaps are seated in domestic ring
A gay society with faces bright,
Conversing, reading, laughing; -- or they sing,
While hearts and voices in the song unite.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1815).

One might well say:  how can a poem that begins with the lines "Even as a dragon's eye that feels the stress/Of a bedimming sleep" be written in language that is "near to the language of men"?  Well, keep reading.  The language is heightened, yes, but I'd say that this is the sort of syntax and tone that Wordsworth had in mind when he made his aesthetic pronouncements.  I find it preferable to the often purple rhetoric of, for instance, Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

An aside:  Wordsworth's poem brings to mind the following poem, which I have never been able to make head or tail of.  But it sounds lovely.

                    Valley Candle

My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

Albert Goodwin, "Salisbury"

Masaoka Shiki died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.  He is traditionally, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa, regarded as one of the four great masters of haiku.  Given Shiki's early death, there is an inevitable tendency to read his tragic fate back into his poetry.  However, although there is no doubt that his long illness (his tuberculosis began when he was 21) influenced how he viewed the world, he -- like any good haiku poet -- was primarily concerned with scrupulously recording what he saw.  But, as is the case with the poems by Hopkins and Wordsworth, Shiki's distinctive sensibility is evident in the following haiku.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 283.

A side-note:  there is a time-honored tradition of basing haiku upon the phrase "withered moor" ("kareno" in Japanese).  The most famous occurrence of the phrase is in what is usually identified as Basho's final poem:

     Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
     Over a withered moor.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 288.

Albert Goodwin, "Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire" (1910)

Monday, February 16, 2015


This past week I saw the first daffodils of the year, and, beside them, the first crocuses.  Over the weekend, a couple of neighbors mowed their lawns.  (The hum of lawnmowers in the distance on a sunny day is an emblem of the stability and endurance of civilized life.)  But I wonder if, this early in the year, the flowers and the mowers are a bit optimistic.

Yet, as I have noted before, the turning of the seasons is a matter of emotion, not of equinoxes and solstices, or of dates on the calendar.  For me, autumn begins sometime in late August or early September.  And spring begins sometime in late February or early March.  As I have suggested in the past, these seasonal transitions have something to do with the cast of the light, the wind, bird-song, and the scent of the earth (the list is not exhaustive).  Not to mention internal weather.

In any event, I am delighted by these confident harbingers.  Which makes me wonder why the following poems by Robert Herrick come to mind.  Yes, the poems concern daffodils and tree blossoms, but Herrick's focus is elsewhere.

     Divination by a Daffodil

When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head t'wards me,
Guess I may, what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buryed.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

With one exception, I have modernized the spelling.  I hesitated to do so, since the spelling in the original 1648 edition is "daffadill," which I think is lovely.  However, I have retained "buryed" in the final line, since it is necessary for the metre (i.e., "bury-ed" rather than our modern "buried").

Stanley Spencer, "Hoe Garden Nursery" (1955)

Here again, Herrick considers daffodils as portents.

             To Daffodils

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
     You haste away so soon:
As yet the early-rising sun
     Has not attain'd his noon.
                                       Stay, stay,
     Until the hasting day
                                       Has run
     But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
          Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
     We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
     As you, or any thing.
                                       We die,
     As your hours do, and dry
     Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
          Ne'r to be found again.

Robert Herrick, Ibid.

I fear that placing these two poems beside one another may misrepresent Herrick, for it perhaps gives the impression that he could not look at spring flowers without thinking of our mortality.  In fact, one of the charms of Hesperides is that poems such as these alternate, in nearly equal measure, with poems that are joyous, humorous, satirical, or ribald.

Herrick's subject matter is the world entire, which he makes clear in "The Argument of His Book" (which I have posted previously):  "I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers . . . I write of youth, of love, and have access/By these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness . . . I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)/Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all."

Stanley Spencer, "View from Cookham Bridge" (1936)

I also noticed a plum tree blossoming this week.  It, like the daffodils and the mowers, seems overly optimistic.  But who am I to second-guess a tree?

             To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
          Why do ye fall so fast?
          Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
          To blush and gently smile;
                         And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
          An hour or half's delight;
          And so to bid goodnight?
'Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
          Merely to show your worth,
                         And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
          May read how soon things have
          Their end, though ne'r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
          Like you a while:  They glide
                         Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Ibid.

What makes Herrick so attractive, even in poems confronting our ultimate fate, is his unquenchable good nature.  This presiding spirit accounts for the empathy and loveliness with which he documents our lives from birth to death, highlighting the minute particulars, both good and ill, that we all share.

The final stanza of "To Blossoms" is a fine example of Herrick at his best: clear-sighted, not mincing words, but withal tender and beautiful.  "Lovely leaves" indeed.  And, yes:  "They glide into the grave."

Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

At Rest

In order to live well, we must come to terms with the fact of our own mortality.  Easier said than done, of course.  I can blithely write "come to terms with," which perhaps gives the impression that I know what I'm talking about -- that I know how to thread this needle.  But I can assure you that I know nothing whatsoever.

Earlier this week I spent half a day in a hospital for a routine diagnostic procedure.  The pre-procedure process involved lying alone on a gurney in a patient room after having an IV tube inserted in my arm.  I was told that I would have to wait twenty minutes for the procedure room to become available.  The lights were off.  I was quite relaxed.  But, as I looked up at the ceiling tiles and listened to the conversations taking place at the nurse's station, a thought occurred to me (a paraphrase):  "This is how my days may end.  Dusty ceiling tiles and strangers in conversation, day and night, out in an unseen hallway."

Here is a happier thought.


'Elizabeth the Beloved' --
So much says the stone,
That is all with weather defaced,
With moss overgrown.

But if to husband or child,
Brother or sire, most dear
Is past deciphering;
This only is clear:

That once she was beloved,
Was Elizabeth,
And now is beloved no longer,
If it be not of Death.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Time Importuned (1928).

"Once she was beloved,/Was Elizabeth" is a lovely turn of phrase.  "And now is beloved no longer,/If it be not of Death" sounds like something that Edward Thomas might have written (and which, like Warner, he would have used to end a poem).  In fact, Warner wrote a poem in memory of Thomas, so there may be a subconscious influence at work.

William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep')" (1852)

If one wishes to "come to terms with" one's mortality, graveyards are preferable to hospitals as places to collect one's thoughts on the matter.

   The Old Graveyard at Hauppauge

In Adam's fall we sinned all,
and fell out of Paradise
into mankind -- this body of salt
and gathering of the waters,
birth, work, and wedding garment.

But now we are at rest . . .
Aletta and Phebe Almira,
and Augusta Brunce, and the MacCrones . . .
lying in the earth, looking up
at the clouds and drifting trees.

Louis Simpson, Caviare at the Funeral (1980).

Some may feel that the final two lines are an exercise in wishful thinking. But isn't our entire life an exercise in wishful thinking?  I'd say that a possible definition of "human being" is:  "the creature that engages in wishful thinking."

In the wake of the so-called Enlightenment, reason and rationalism are presumed to trump emotion and intuition.  However, when it comes to how to live (and how to die), a belief in the primacy of reason and rationalism (and in their noisome spawn, "Progress") is just as much an exercise in wishful thinking as is the thought (a lovely one, by the way) that those who have departed are "lying in the earth, looking up/at the clouds and drifting trees."  Reason and rationalism have nothing to do with what is humanly true.

 David Roberts, "Wrth y Bedd" (c. 1950)

In attempting to "come to terms with" my mortality, I prefer to leave reason and rationalism out of account.  The fact of our death, and the way in which we live our life in light of that unchangeable fact, is a matter of emotion, intuition, and imagination, not of ratiocination and logic.

For instance, the following poem is, on its face, irrational.  How can someone speak from the grave?  How can a wood-dove mourn?  Yet the poem makes perfect sense to me.

Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (1960).  The poem is untitled.

Fortunately for us, reason and rationalism have absolutely nothing to do with the essence of poetry.  I agree with Edward Thomas:  the criterion for judging whether certain words placed in a certain order qualify as poetry is whether what the poet says "is true and not feigning."  Humanly true.

John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1859)

Sunday, February 8, 2015


In some quarters, starlings are viewed as pests, particularly when they congregate in massive flocks.  And there is no doubt that they can make quite a racket, even in small groups.  But if you watch them as they go about their daily business, they can become quite endearing.

I have no illusions.  As I watch a small flock of starlings flit from place to place in the neighborhood, or in a park, I realize that they are driven by hunger and skittishness.  The constant activity is a matter of survival.  But, as I say, there is something endearing and beguiling about this intensely preoccupied, antic, ever-chattering community.


Can you keep it so,
cool tree, making a blue cage
for an obstreperous population? --
for a congregation of mediaeval scholars
quarrelling in several languages? --
for busybodies marketing
in the bazaar of green leaves? --
for clockwork fossils that can't be still even
when the Spring runs down?

No tree, no blue cage can contain
that restlessness.  They whirr off
and sow themselves in a scattered handful
on the grass -- and are
bustling monks
tilling their green precincts.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

As I mentioned in my previous post, birds are apt candidates for anthropomorphization, and Norman MacCaig does this quite well. "Bustling monks/tilling their green precincts" is wonderful.

Charles Napier Hemy, "Pilchards" (1897)

Thomas Hardy has no reservations whatsoever when it comes to this sort of thing.  Monologues by, and conversations between, non-human creatures are a common occurrence in his poetry.  I suspect that some Modernists may find this to be old-fashioned, quaint, "sentimental," or otherwise objectionable on aesthetic grounds: not "serious" poetry, in other words.

Here's a test.  Which would you prefer?  To read a poem by Thomas Hardy in which birds carry on a casual conversation (or, to cite another example, a poem in which a dog converses with his deceased former owner, recently buried beneath the turf)?  Or would you prefer to read something by James Joyce?  Well, I think you know my answer.  Talking birds win hands down.

                     Winter in Durnover Field

Scene. -- A wide stretch of fallow ground recently
sown with wheat, and frozen to iron hardness.  Three
large birds walking about thereon, and wistfully eyeing
the surface.  Wind keen from north-east: sky a dull grey.

Rook. -- Throughout the field I find no grain;
                 The cruel frost encrusts the cornland!
Starling. -- Aye: patient pecking now is vain
                      Throughout the field, I find . . .
Rook. --                                                              No grain!
Pigeon. -- Nor will be, comrade, till it rain,
                    Or genial thawings loose the lorn land
                    Throughout the field.
Rook. --                                                I find no grain:
                 The cruel frost encrusts the cornland!

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).

The poem is a triolet.  Thus, the first, fourth, and seventh lines are the same, as are the second line and the last line.  This in turn means that the opening and closing couplets are identical.

Charles Napier Hemy, "Trout in the Eel Reeve" (1890)

The following poem demonstrates that, although Hardy is being playful when it comes to his bird conversations, he is not, in doing so, sacrificing the ability to create an affecting scene.

                 Starlings on the Roof

"No smoke spreads out of this chimney-pot,
The people who lived here have left the spot,
And others are coming who knew them not.

"If you listen anon, with an ear intent,
The voices, you'll find, will be different
From the well-known ones of those who went."

"Why did they go?  Their tones so bland
Were quite familiar to our band;
The comers we shall not understand."

"They look for a new life, rich and strange;
They do not know that, let them range
Wherever they may, they will get no change.

"They will drag their house-gear ever so far
In their search for a home no miseries mar;
They will find that as they were they are,

"That every hearth has a ghost, alack,
And can be but the scene of a bivouac
Till they move their last -- no care to pack!"

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries, with Miscellaneous Pieces (1914).

I would suggest that the fact that this conversation is between two starlings -- rather than between two humans standing on the sidewalk -- actually heightens the poem's impact, brings home more deeply the universal human plight that is the subject of the poem.  But I may certainly be wrong.

Charles Napier Hemy, "Evening Gray" (1868)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


As I walked through the backyard a few days ago, it was full of twitterings and snatches of song.  Sparrows, chickadees, robins, starlings?  I'm no expert on these ornithological matters.  Besides, as is their wont, they were shy, and thus hidden.

In my younger years, I was on the lookout for bedizened birds: cardinals, orioles, tanagers, and the like.  But now I am fond of these workaday companions, who are with us always.  Think of the generations of them that have accompanied us through our lives!  There is little in life that is constant, or that can be relied upon, but this humble, comforting chorus has never ceased.

                    Winter Garden

The dunnock in the hedge -- is he fearful
or fastidious?  His eyes are fixed on the bird table
where five free-for-all sparrows
peck in a shower bath of crumbs.

A mouse zigzags
among the frozen raspberry canes,
going nowhere elaborately.

Three apple trees look as if they'd get on rehearsing
as Macbeth's witches
if they had the energy.

And, only seven hours old,
the day begins to die.

-- The sparrows have gone, telling everybody, and the dunnock
is giving us all
a lesson in table manners.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

John Nash, "Winter Scene, Buckinghamshire" (1920)

As a rule, Japanese waka and haiku poets do not traffic in "symbols," "metaphors," or "allegories."  They simply report what is going on in the World around us.  All this thinking that we do is highly overrated.

If they didn't sing
we'd just take them
for deeper-hued leaves --
the flocks of greenfinches
feeding on willow buds.

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

Now, I acknowledge that it certainly took some thinking on Saigyo's part to compose this poem.  But the thinking went into figuring out how to present this beautiful piece of the World to us with the least amount of interference and elaboration.  Lest we destroy Saigyo's lovely report on experience, we must resist mightily such thoughts as:  "The flocks of greenfinches symbolize . . ."  Or, worse:  "The meaning of this waka is . . ."  No.  We must stop all that.  Saigyo has given us the World.  That is enough.

John Nash, "Winter Scene"

When it comes to birds, I suppose that anthropomorphism is always a danger (the Pathetic Fallacy, sentimentality, et cetera).  But is this really a danger?  If we don't see ourselves out there in the World, then where do we see ourselves?  In the mirror?  In the phantasies, phantasms, and frauds of popular culture?

     Family of Long-tailed Tits

Their twittering isn't avant-garde
or confessional or aleatory.
It doesn't quote other birds
or utter manifestos telling them
how to sing.

It's congruent with their way of flying,
for that, too,
is a sweetest, softest twittering
to the eye.

The clumsy, clever human
bumbles about in the space
between his actions and his words.
No congruence there.

He listens with envy
while their song flirts
from one twig of silence
to another one.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

John Nash, "Melting Snow at Wormingford" (1962)