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)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz,
I've had a great affection for Herrick's poetry for a many years. Thank you for reminding me to revisit him. I have'nt looked at his poetry for a while now.

Yesterday I was walking through a local park and some woods. It was a beautiful day of almost cloudless blue skies and early Spring sunshine. There was a haze of tiny purple crocus covering a the grass in a clearing among the trees and the first daffodils nodding in the sunlight beside a fast flowing stream. A delightful day!
I agree with you that seasons are matters of emotion as well as dates on a calendar, and your phrase "internal weather" is perfect.

Thanks you for continuing with such interesting posts. I always read them,though I may not always comment.

Michael said...

Stephen -

A lovely collection of Herrick poems, thank you for sharing them.

What came to mind when reading them was not so much another poem as an entire different tradition. The haiku ideal of mono no aware, which Wikipedia has defined as 'the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.'

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. I hadn't visited Herrick's poetry for a while, but the daffodils I saw brought these poems to mind. I have been enjoying him this past week. He is always a delight.

Your walk sounds lovely. The crocuses over there are well ahead of ours.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Michael: I'm pleased you enjoyed the poems. As I mentioned in my reply to Mr Ashton, returning to Herrick's poetry is always a delight.

I agree with you completely about the sensibility of haiku. As you know from reading my prior posts, I am very fond of haiku, precisely for the reasons you articulate.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts.

luca guerneri said...

Thanks, your choice of poems is always surprising and interesting an so are your comments.
(from Italy)

Starr White said...

I have only recently discovered your beautiful blog, and I am enjoying it immensely. I am a late comer to poetry. Thank you for sharing it here.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Guerneri: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for visiting. It's always nice to hear that the poems I select may resonate with others as well. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms White: I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you'll return. I greatly appreciate your kind words.

As far as being a "late comer" to poetry: it's never too late (as the saying goes). I hope that what you find here will encourage you to look further, both here and elsewhere.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Any avid reader of Shakespeare knows that "The Winter's Tale" is full of flowers. Perhaps the most famous passage is the song sung by Autolycus (for anyone interested another lovely passage about flowers is in Act IV SC. iv, beginning at line 113):

When daffodils begin to peer, --
With hey! The doxy over the dale, Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge, --
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing! --
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

The lark, that tirra-lirra chants, --
With hey! with hey! the thrush and the jay, --
Are summer songs for me and for my aunts,
While we lie tumbling in the hay.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the passage from Shakespeare, which is new to me. The high spirit of the lines is reminiscent of how Herrick can sound at times -- although, of course, Shakespeare is in a class of his own.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Ted Hughes writes a poignant poem about his dead wife and him collecting daffodils when they were young, newly married. Pertinent to your post? Perhaps not. It's interesting how the mind of a poet works: Hughes notes correctly that the daffodils spring from the earth every March, but they lift themselves with no knowledge of the woman who once snipped them with her scissors. Then following hard up this observation he says that the lost scissors do remember--and we readers find no contradiction at all.


We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter’s bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens -
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered -
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch -

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave’s stony cold
As if ice had a breath -

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod - an anchor, a cross of rust.
-Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters

Unknown said...

When I think of poetry and daffodils, I think of William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Thank you for helping me expand upon Wordsworth's daffodils.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Hughes's poem, which is new to me. I agree with you that his focus on the lost scissors is what gives the poem its impact, unexpectedly so. I like "baby-cries from the thaw,/Ballerinas too early for music."

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

I agree: "I wandered lonely as a cloud" usually crosses my mind as well when I spot the first daffodils of the year. And I've learned in recent years that we need to give Dorothy Wordsworth credit for the role she played in inspiring her brother with her journal entry: "I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing."

Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Regarding Dorothy Wordsworth, I wholeheartedly agree. I often somewhat pull the rug out from under Wordsworth by telling students -- with my tongue in cheek -- that Dorothy's brother plagiarized from his sister. :)

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you for the follow-up thought. You are probably already familiar with it, but, if not, I recommend Lucy Newlyn's William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' (Oxford University Press 2013), which examines their creative partnership in interesting detail.

Thanks again.

John Medlin said...

I've only just seen this post, for which thanks. It's quite some time since I last read Herrick. Apropos one of your recent posts, I have been reading Thomas Hardy, 'wading' through his over 900 poems (crickey). Reading your Herrick post made me think immediately (possibly I'm way behind many other people here) that he and Hardy are similar poets in that they both responded immediately to what they had seen or thought and got the response down quickly into a poem. Herrick's collected poems are, after all, quite a doorstep of a book, just like Hardy's. The great difference between the two, of course, is that Herrick was, usually, of a much sunnier or phlegmatic disposition than Hardy who, despite his many protestations, let's face it, was gloomy, depressive and pessimistic! And still wrote wonderful poems. Indeed, it struck me the other day whilst reading Hardy, and now whilst reading Herrick, that they both anticipated the so-called modernist 'discovery' of stream of consciousness writing. What are Hardy's poems, in particular, but his non-stop stream of consciousness response to the phenomena, internal and external, of being in this world?
Many thanks for your blogsite which I enjoy greatly.

Anonymous said...

No daffodils in the following lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream, but, if we are talking about flowers, can we find more beautiful poetry than this (my God, these four lines can take a man's breath away):

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Medlin: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for your thoughts about Herrick and Hardy.

I agree that both of them sought to respond to the world in an immediate fashion, which perhaps led to the voluminousness of their poetry. (Although, as you know, one of Herrick's strengths is his pithiness. Nobody wrote as many two-line poems!) I understand what you mean about the "stream of consciousness" element in Hardy's poetry. However, I am also mindful of the fact that a great deal of Hardy's poetry is a revisitation of his past. After all, he said that he could recall with crystal clarity a small incident that occurred 40 years previously. And, of course, the traditional poetic forms and meters employed by Hardy and Herrick provide a discipline that is absent from "stream of consciousness" as the Modernists employ it.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing those lines. I agree: beautiful. And they make me look forward to full spring (and summer). Thanks again.