Tuesday, March 31, 2015

For Children Of All Ages

I think of nursery rhymes as pleasant ditties that one recites to children in order to keep them entertained on an idle afternoon or to lull them to sleep at night.  Thus, I find the subject matter of some of the poems in Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book to be a bit eccentric.  For instance, ten poems into the collection one comes across this:

Dead in the cold, a song-singing thrush,
Dead at the foot of a snowberry bush, --
Weave him a coffin of rush,
Dig him a grave where the soft mosses grow,
Raise him a tombstone of snow.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

A few poems later, one finds this:

A baby's cradle with no baby in it,
     A baby's grave where autumn leaves drop sere;
The sweet soul gathered home to Paradise,
     The body waiting here.


My knowledge of children's literature is negligible, but I do know that fairy tales can sometimes be frightening, or have dark subtexts.  Perhaps the same is true of nursery rhymes.  I don't know.  But I can't imagine reading either of these poems to a child as he or she nods off to sleep.

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

However, I will say this:  although the subject matter of the two poems may make them odd "nursery rhymes," there is no denying that they are lovely poems in and of themselves.  And for this I give Rossetti a great deal of credit:  she does not alter her poetic style in a way that patronizes children. She does not resort to baby-talk.  If one were to encounter the poems outside of a book of "nursery rhymes," it would not be apparent that they were written for children.

Here is another example:

Why did baby die,
Making Father sigh,
Mother cry?

Flowers, that bloom to die,
Make no reply
Of "why?"
But bow and die.


The first stanza is perhaps sing-songy (making due allowance for the appearance of death, of course), but the second stanza would be right at home in any number of "adult" poems written by Rossetti.  (The lines also sound like something that Robert Herrick might have written.)

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

How often does Charon, the ferryman who bears souls to Hades across the rivers Styx and Acheron, appear in nursery rhymes?

"Ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."
"If you've a penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."

"I have a penny in my purse,
     And my eyes are blue;
So ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."

"Step into my ferry-boat,
     Be they black or blue,
And for the penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."


According to tradition, Charon requires a penny in payment for his services.  A poem by A. E. Housman comes to mind.

Crossing alone the nighted ferry
     With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the far quayside in waiting,
     Count you to find?  not me.

The fond lackey to fetch and carry,
     The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
     And free land of the grave.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).

Which is the nursery rhyme and which is the "adult" poem?

Charles Oppenheimer, "From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

As I have noted on prior occasions, Rossetti was deeply religious, and a great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse which is intended to instruct and enlighten, and to provide solace.  I suspect that she intended her nursery rhymes to serve the same ends.  She may have believed that mortality is something that children as well as adults ought to face up to. Seems reasonable to me.

What are heavy?  sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief?  today and tomorrow:
What are frail?  Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep?  the ocean and truth.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book.

Charles Oppenheimer, "My Garden at Twilight"

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Little Things

Yesterday, my afternoon walk began amid a sun shower.  As I walked along a row of trees (budding, but still bare), I was surrounded by veils of rain shot through with sunlight.  The world was a-glitter.  Overhead, a single bird chirped.  I looked, and finally found it:  a lone robin perched on empty black boughs near the top of a 50-foot tall bigleaf maple.

I've read all the books but one
Only remains sacred:  this
Volume of wonders, open
Always before my eyes.

Kathleen Raine, The Oracle in the Heart (The Dolmen Press 1980).

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)

I mention the sun shower and the robin not because they are unique, and certainly not to display any special powers of observation on my part, for I have none.  In a week's time, I likely will have forgotten the moment.  In one sense, scenes such as this are commonplace.  Yet that does not render them any less miraculous.

And though a week from now the robin and the sun shower may be "forgotten," will they indeed have vanished from my life?  Or is there a place where these moments reside, and congregate?

Forest is multitude,
But one tree all, one apple-bud
Opens the flower of the world, infinite
Golden stamens and rose petals, here.

Kathleen Raine, Ibid.

Wanting to know all
I overlooked each particle
Containing the whole

Kathleen Raine, Collected Poems (Counterpoint 2001).

William Wigley (1880-1943), "Mevagissey Quay, Cornwall"

As I turned toward home, I came across a small puddle in the middle of the path.  The puddle contained the whole of the blue sky, all of its stately white clouds.  I often feel that I am not as grateful as I ought to be.

Incredible that anything exists -- this hotch-potch
World of marvels and trivia, and which is which?

Kathleen Raine, Living With Mystery (Golgonooza Press 1992).

I am reminded of a statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein, which has appeared here before, but which is worth repeating, since it provides a nice complement to Raine's poem:  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."  An alternative translation is:  "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.44, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (italics in the original).  The first translation is by C. K. Ogden.  The second is by David Pears and Brian McGuinness.

George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

Unbidden, the World bestows great gifts upon us.  But we must be receptive and attentive.  I nearly skipped my afternoon walk yesterday due to the uncertain weather.  I considered taking a nap instead.

We mustn't forget:  it is always possible to wake from a sound sleep and find oneself in a luminous World.

                    On a Boat, Awake at Night

Faint wind rustles reeds and cattails;
I open the hatch, expecting rain -- moon floods the lake.
Boatmen and water birds dream the same dream;
a big fish splashes off like a frightened fox.
It's late -- men and creatures forget each other
while my shadow and I amuse ourselves alone.
Dark tides creep over the flats -- I pity the cold mud-worms;
the setting moon, caught in a willow, lights a dangling spider.
Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;
how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?
Cocks crow, bells ring, a hundred birds scatter;
drums pound from the bow, shout answers shout.

Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994). Watson includes the following note to line 12:  "Drums were sounded in the bow when the boat was under way."

To make the imperfect perfect
It is enough to love it.

Kathleen Raine, Living With Mystery.

Claughton Pellew, "The Windmill, Sheringham" (1925)

Saturday, March 21, 2015


During our all-too-brief sojourn on Earth, we owe it to ourselves to cultivate a state of repose and dreamy reverie.  Repose and reverie are valuable in and of themselves.  But they also share a beneficial side-effect:  a person in repose and reverie is wont to leave other people alone.

There are far too many busybodies abroad in the world.  As I have remarked in the past, this is a product of the utopian impulse that has infected humanity in the wake of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."  The busybodies possess a noisome stream of notions about how we ought to live our lives.

The rest of us just want to be left alone.


Repose is in simplicities.
Perhaps the mind has leaves like trees,
Luxuriant in the sensual sun
And tossed by wind's intricacies,
And finds repose is more than grief
When failing light and falling leaf
Denote that winter has begun.

James Reeves, The Natural Need (1936).

Paul Gauguin, "The Willows" (1889)

For busybodies, everything is an "issue," everything is a problem to be solved.  If you do not agree with them, you become a part of the problem. Rest assured:  within the soul of every soi-disant "progressive" and "activist" there lurks a totalitarian.

My response to busybodies and their agendas (for them, life is a never-ending series of agendas) is simple.

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked,
You are a toad."

And after I had thought of it,
I said:  "I will, then, be a toad."

Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895).  The poem is untitled.

Paul Gauguin, "Landscape at Pont-Aven" (1886)

The only "problem" that each of us needs to attend to is the state of our own soul.  I have yet to encounter a person who has earned the right to tell anybody else how to live their life.  What, then, is that sound you hear emanating from busybodies and from their symbiotic overlords and enablers (politicians, social engineers, and media mouthpieces)? Hypocrisy.

Good-bye to all that.  I shall join Ernest Dowson in Brittany.

                                      Breton Afternoon

Here, where the breath of the scented-gorse floats through the sun-stained           air,
On a steep hill-side, on a grassy ledge, I have lain hours long and heard
Only the faint breeze pass in a whisper like a prayer,
And the river ripple by and the distant call of a bird.

On the lone hill-side, in the gold sunshine, I will hush me and repose,
And the world fades into a dream and a spell is cast on me;
And what was all the strife about, for the myrtle or the rose,
And why have I wept for a white girl's paleness passing ivory!

Out of the tumult of angry tongues, in a land alone, apart,
In a perfumed dream-land set betwixt the bounds of life and death,
Here will I lie while the clouds fly by and delve an hole where my heart
May sleep deep down with the gorse above and red, red earth beneath.

Sleep and be quiet for an afternoon, till the rose-white angelus
Softly steals my way from the village under the hill:
Mother of God, O Misericord, look down in pity on us,
The weak and blind who stand in our light and wreak ourselves such ill.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations: In Verse and Prose (1899).

Paul Gauguin, "The Wooden Gate" (1889)

In due time, of course, we shall attain our ultimate repose and reverie.  A busybody-free bourne.

                 In a Breton Cemetery

They sleep well here,
     These fisher-folk who passed their anxious days
     In fierce Atlantic ways;
And found not there,
     Beneath the long curled wave,
     So quiet a grave.

And they sleep well
     These peasant-folk, who told their lives away,
     From day to market-day,
As one should tell,
     With patient industry,
     Some sad old rosary.

And now night falls,
     Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
     A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
     And dear dead people with pale hands
     Beckon me to their lands.

Ernest Dowson, Ibid.

Paul Gauguin, "Haymaking in Brittany" (1888)

Monday, March 16, 2015


I once visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand that had a carp pond on its grounds.  The temple's monks sold small paper bags containing pellets of fish food.  I dutifully purchased a bag and walked on to a footbridge that crossed the pond, which was circular, and about 80 feet in diameter.  At the midpoint of the bridge, I leaned on its ledge and looked down into the dark water ten feet or so below, where I could see shadowy movements beneath the surface.  I threw a handful of pellets into the water.

What happened next viscerally shocked me.  Hundreds of black and silver carp instantaneously emerged out of the water in a proverbial feeding frenzy, climbing over each other in competition for the pellets.  The pond surged and roiled and bubbled.

Call me overly sensitive, but I was physically and emotionally stunned by the spectacle.  My immediate thought (I have no idea where it came from) was:  This is us.

I sometimes wonder whether this fish-feeding exercise was planned by the monks to teach us spiritual amateurs the Buddhist concept of trishna (literally, "thirst," but also desire, craving, grasping, clinging), which is thought to be the primary cause of dukkha, the suffering which is our lot as human beings.  In any event, the exercise was successful in my case:  it is the closest I have ever come to an experience of "enlightenment."

Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)

Let me be clear:  I make no claim to possessing any extraordinary powers of awareness or perception.  Until that day at the carp pond I was a sleepwalker.  It was a well-deserved (and much-needed) slap in the face. (Of course, I am still mostly a sleepwalker.)

As I noted in a recent post, I believe that, in our heart of hearts, each of us knows these Eternal Verities.  Poets throughout the world and throughout the ages have known them.  We ought to listen.

                         A Gentle Wind

A gentle wind fans the calm night;
A bright moon shines on the high tower.
A voice whispers, but no one answers when I call;
A shadow stirs, but no one comes when I beckon.
The kitchen-man brings in a dish of bean-leaves;
Wine is there, but I do not fill my cup.
Contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift;
Riches and Honour are the handmaids of Disaster.
Though gold and gems by the world are sought and prized,
To me they seem no more than weeds or chaff.

Fu Hsuan (217-278) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

At this point, a pause is required.  In fact, I have considered abandoning this post altogether.  I am an American, and this blog has an international readership (for which I am profoundly grateful).  Coming from the country that I do (by accident of birth), I fear that it is perhaps extremely insensitive and obtuse of me to venture into the subject of the role that material wealth plays in our lives.  Isn't this what the younger generation mockingly calls "a First World problem"?  I have never known want (a circumstance of fate which I try to be mindful of, and thankful for, on a daily basis), so who am I to engage in mental contortions about the role of wealth in our life, or to post a poem which contains the line "contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift"?  It's a problem.

I shall leave it at this:  I am aware of my position, and it troubles me.  That being said, I do believe that this is an issue that is a fundamental human issue, not solely a matter of economics or of politics.  To wit (at the risk of sounding glib):  trishna and dukkha.  The fact that poets wrote about the subject in China in the 3rd century, in the remnants of the Roman Empire in the 6th century (see below), and in England in the 17th century (see below) tells us that this is a matter of how the soul makes its way through life.

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

The following three poems appear in sequence in Robert Herrick's Hesperides.

                 Poverty and Riches

Give Want her welcome if she comes; we find
Riches to be but burthens to the mind.


Who with a little cannot be content,
Endures an everlasting punishment.

               The Covetous Still Captives

Let's live with that small pittance that we have;
Who covets more, is evermore a slave.

Robert Herrick, Poems 605, 606, and 607, Hesperides (1648).

Herrick italicizes the second line of "The Covetous Still Captives" in order to signal that it has a classical source (this is his usual practice in Hesperides).  The source is Book I, Epistle 10, lines 39-41, of Horace's Epistles:  "the base man who forgoes his freedom . . . through fear of poverty, bears a master and is a slave forever, because he does not know how to make much of little."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 685-686.

Roger Fry, "Lilies" (1917)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524) wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned for alleged treason against Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king who ruled over what was left of the Roman Empire.  As a practical matter, he was then living under a sentence of death (which would eventually be carried out).  The work consists of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  The following poem appears in Book II, in which Philosophy counsels Boethius on the fickleness of Fortune, and on the ingratitude of humans for the blessings, however transitory, that are bestowed upon them by Fortune's ever-turning wheel.

Should Plenty ever pour out riches
     abundant as sands on a beach
that the waves pile up, or the stars in the clear
     night sky, without stinting,
men would not cease their endless complaining
     and pleading always for more.
If God were prodigal, showering gold
     in answer to every prayer,
and heaping honors on every head,
     they would not be content,
never mind grateful.  They'd take it for granted.
     Greed opens new maws.
There are no limits, no satiation,
     even in those who choke
on their wealth and good fortune.  Their thirsts yet
     burn with poverty's need.

Boethius (translated by David Slavitt), The Consolation of Philosophy (Harvard University Press 2008), pages 33-34.

In addition to being lovable and always good for a laugh, Arthur Schopenhauer is an astute judge of human nature.  In the following aphorism he provides us with a clue as to why "poverty's need" is never quenched in some of us, and why "greed opens new maws," no matter how much some of us acquire:

"Money is human happiness in abstracto; and so the man who is no longer capable of enjoying such happiness in concreto, sets his whole heart on money."

Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Psychological Remarks," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II (1851).

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Strange How The Count Of Time Revalues Things!"

The smallest things can evoke the essence of a season.  Or of a life.  This past Sunday, a cloudless day, I was walking on the bluffs above Puget Sound, which glittered in the west.  As I walked past a wide green field in which people were flying kites and dogs were frolicking, a strong breeze buffeted my ears.  In an instant, that sound brought back the distilled essence of decades of windy Marches, the details of which I have long forgotten.

At that moment, I did not feel "happy" or "sad."  Nor did I regret the irrevocable passing of the years, years that had briefly returned, and then vanished again.  Instead, I felt an inarticulate sense of calmness and serenity.

     Everything Is Going To Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855) 

As I think back now on that windy moment I experienced on Sunday, I am reminded of an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein:

"When he was about 21 years of age . . . something occurred that had a lasting impact on him.  He saw a play in Vienna which was mediocre drama: but there was a scene in which a person whose life had been desperately miserable, and who thought himself about to die, suddenly felt himself to be spoken to in the words, 'Nothing can happen to you!'  No matter what occurred in the world, no harm could come to him! Wittgenstein was greatly struck by this thought (as he told me approximately forty years later)."

Norman Malcom, "A Religious Man?" in F. A. Flowers (editor), Portraits of Wittgenstein, Volume 4 (Thoemmes Press 1999), page 192.

This anecdote can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Norman Malcolm puts a religious gloss upon it.  In the case of the enigmatic and mystical Wittgenstein, who can say?  But I have a vague notion of what he was getting at.  I think.  Or at least I have inklings of the feeling of which he speaks.

Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)

These visceral, bone-deep, and crystal-clear distillations of our past are wonderful.  Inexplicable and wonderful.

                         White Cloud

One evening in the blue month of September
we lay at peace beneath an apple bough.
I took her in my arms, my gentle lover,
and held her closely like a dream come true --
while far up in the tranquil summer heaven
there was a cloud, I saw it high and clear;
it was so white and so immense above us
and, as I watched, it was no longer there.

Since then so very many different evenings
have drifted blindly past in the general flow;
perhaps the apple orchards have been flattened,
and if you ask me where the girl is now
I have to admit I really don't remember.
I can imagine what you're going to say
but even her face I truly can't recapture,
I only know I kissed it there that day.

Even the kiss I would have long forgotten
if that one cloud had not been up there too --
I see it and will always see it plainly,
so white and unexpected in the blue.
Perhaps the apple boughs are back in blossom,
maybe she holds a fourth child on her knees;
the cloud, though, hung there for a moment only
and, as I watched, it broke up in the breeze.

Bertolt Brecht (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove (The Gallery Press 2013).

Samuel Bough, "Dunkirk Harbour" (1863)

Brecht's meditation on the quirkiness and the majesty of how our memory works is strikingly paralleled in the following poem, which has appeared here before, but is worth revisiting.


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961), Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

We never know what our revenants will turn out to be, do we?  A lone white cloud, crushed bracken, the wings of doves among dim branches far above: we each have our own list.  What survives out of our thousands of moments of living is a mystery.  Which is perfectly fine.

Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

Friday, March 6, 2015


The magnolias are blossoming.  As are the cherries and plums and pears. "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . ."  But more on that in a moment.

The following ode by Horace begins as a paean to spring.  But, as is often the case, Horace uses a precisely-observed opening scene as a prelude to a wide-ranging meditation on the human condition.  This is what makes him so lovable, and his poetry so beguiling and delightful:  who knows where he will take us next?

The snows are gone, and grass returns again,
     New leaves adorn the widow trees,
The unswoln streams their narrow banks contain,
     And softly roll to quiet seas:

The decent Nymphs with smiling Graces join'd,
     Now naked dance i'th' open air,
They dread no blasts, nor fear the wind
     That wantons thro' their flowing hair.

The nimble hour that turns the circling year,
     And swiftly whirls the pleasing day,
Forewarns thee to be mortal in thy care,
     Nor cramp thy life with long delay:

The Spring the Winter, Summer wastes the Spring,
     And Summer's beauty's quickly lost,
When drunken Autumn spreads her drooping wing,
     And next cold Winter creeps in frost.

The moon, 'tis true, her monthly loss repairs,
     She straight renews her borrow'd light;
But when black Death hath turn'd our shining years,
     There follows one Eternal Night.

When we shall view the gloomy Stygian shore,
     And walk amongst the mighty dead,
Where Tullus, where Aeneas went before,
     We shall be dust, and empty shade:

Who knows if stubborn Fate will prove so kind,
     And join to this another day?
What e'er is for thy greedy heir design'd,
     Will slip his hands, and fly away:

When thou art gone, and Minos' sentence read,
     Torquatus, there is no return;
Thy fame, nor all thy learned tongue can plead,
     Nor goodness shall unseal the urn:

For chaste Hippolytus Diana strives,
     She strives, but ah! she strives in vain;
Nor Theseus' care, and pious force reprieves
     His dear Pirithous from his chain.

Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book IV, Ode 7, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684).  "Unswoln" (line 3) is the spelling as it appears in Creech's original translation.

The ode is addressed to Torquatus (line 30), a member of a well-known Roman family who was a lawyer by profession (hence the reference to "thy learned tongue" in line 31).  Tullus Hostilius (line 23)  is traditionally identified as the third king of Rome.  Minos (line 29) was the judge of the dead in the Underworld.  Hippolytus (line 33) was falsely accused by his stepmother Phaedra of attempting to seduce her.  He was killed by order of his father Theseus before Diana was able to disclose Phaedra's deception to Theseus.  Pirithous (line 36), accompanied by Theseus, went down to the Underworld to claim Persephone as his wife.  Theseus was able to escape with the aid of Hercules, but Pirithous remained forever imprisoned.

Lucien Pissarro, "Rade de Bormes" (1923)

Even if A. E. Housman had not been a classical scholar and a professor of Latin, one suspects that Horace's ode was the sort of thing that would catch his fancy, given his temperament.  And, sure enough, it did.

"I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years.  At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read.  At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room.  He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front.  One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.'  This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.

Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said:  'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.'  Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt.  He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own.  'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.

A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us.  'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said.  'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"

Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.

Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Here is the translation that Housman read to his students in Cambridge on that May morning in 1914.

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

Horace (translated by A. E. Housman), in A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).  "Shaws" (line 1) are groves or thickets of trees.  Ancus Marcius (line 15) (whose name Creech omits from his translation) is traditionally identified as the fourth king of Rome.

Lucien Pissarro, "The Thierceville Road, Early Spring" (1893)

We thus come to Housman's "loveliest of trees," which has appeared here before, but which is always worth revisiting at this time of year.  Reading it (well, reading any of Housman's poems) in conjunction with Horace's ode, one can understand why the ode provoked such an emotional response in Housman.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, Poem II, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

Housman wrote the poem between May and July of 1895.  Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997), page 320.  The date of Housman's translation of Horace's ode is unknown. However, it was first published in a periodical in 1897.  Ibid, page 426.

Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)

Monday, March 2, 2015


As I have noted on previous occasions, each generation believes that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  How could it be otherwise? Whether it arrives via a footsore messenger, a sailing ship in port from distant lands, telegraph, television, or the Internet, the News of the World is not, and has never been, calculated to inspire confidence in the goodwill and beneficence of humanity.

Thus, when I launch into one of my periodic rants about Modernity (Science, Progress, the media, politicians, et cetera), I ought to know better.  Yes, of course:  the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  But this has never been the fault of current events, which are invariably horrendous and dispiriting.  Nor is it the fault of the makeshift (and risible) political, economic, and scientific nostrums that are developed in each generation in order to "explain" and "correct" all that is wrong with the World.  Rather, this has always been a matter of False Gods versus Eternal Verities.

Still, I must confess to believing this:  when it comes to the balance between Eternal Verities and False Gods, there has been a grievous wrong-turning.

                    On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (1964).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

The False Gods usually have the upper hand:  their superficial appeal and their promise of immediate gratification are alluring.  The Eternal Verities are, on the other hand, sober and tradition-bound.  Old-fashioned. Sentimental.  Boring.

You may have noticed that I have not attempted to define the False Gods and the Eternal Verities.  Although I have no illusions about human nature, I persist in believing that most of us know the difference between the real and the feigned, the true and the false.  In the final scene of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Artur Sammler stands beside the body of his nephew Elya Gruner, which lies on a gurney in an autopsy room in the bowels of a hospital.  In "a mental whisper," Sammler speaks the final words of the novel:

"At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be.  He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet -- through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding -- he did meet the terms of his contract.  The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.  As I know mine.  As all know.  For that is the truth of it -- that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet (Viking Press 1970).


Clearly this stupid world doesn't inspire
anything now but an intense antipathy,
an urge to vanish and be done with it;
you hardly dare pick up a newspaper.

Perhaps we should go back to the old home
where our ancestors lived under the eye
of heaven, and find the curious harmony
that sanctified their lives from womb to tomb.

It's some kind of faith for which we yearn,
some gentle web of close dependencies
transcending and containing our existence.
We can no longer live so far from the eternal.

Michel Houellebecq (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove (The Gallery Press 2013).

Charles Cundall, "Temeside, Ludlow" (1923)

A poem that Mahon wrote long before he translated Houellebecq's poem seems apt.


The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches;
The kettle yearns for the mountain,
The soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On a desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing 'Abide with Me.'

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Lisbeth Jane Brand (1907-1970), "Winter"

The Eternal Verities are, well, eternal.  Call them revenants, but they are always there.  Let me be clear:  I have only a vague notion of what they are. I remain in thrall to the False Gods.  But the choice is ever ours.  Perhaps abstention is the first step.

                 The Valley Wind

Living in retirement beyond the World,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And stuff my window with roots and ferns.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season;
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.

Lu Yun (4th century A. D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Remember, and take heart:  "They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it."  Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (1952).

Charles Frederick Dawson, "Accrington From My Window" (1932)