Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"A Stranger Here Strange Things Doth Meet, Strange Glory See; Strange Treasures Lodged In This Fair World Appear"

On my afternoon walk, I often silently chide myself:  Stop thinking!  As I have remarked here on more than one occasion, thinking is highly overrated.  I thus harbor the quixotic notion that, one day, my stroll will be thought-free.  But, alas, the past, present, and future always intrude.

The mind is an unending source of distraction.  Yesterday I walked along a row of trees whose boughs were full of the hum of bees.  My first reaction was simple joy at the all-enveloping sound coming down from the green and blue spaces overhead.  But thinking soon intervened: "What kind of tree is this?"  Followed by: "the bee-loud glade."  Why couldn't I leave well enough alone?

                  A Passing Glimpse

I often see flowers from a passing car
That are gone before I can tell what they are.

I want to get out of the train and go back
To see what they were beside the track.

I name all the flowers I am sure they weren't:
Not fireweed loving where woods have burnt --

Not bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth --
Not lupine living on sand and drouth.

Was something brushed across my mind
That no one on earth will ever find?

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in position to look too close.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

I am reminded of Frost's "The Most of It," in which the universe suddenly and unexpectedly makes its presence known in the form of "a great buck" that emerges from a forest and swims across a lake -- "and that was all." Perhaps these glimpses are as much as we can hope for.  All the more reason to not obscure them with thought.

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "Kirkcudbright"

The poems of Frost and Edward Thomas often seem like an ever-ongoing conversation between the two of them.  At times, the conversation consists of counterpoints.  At other times, they seem to be completing each other's thoughts.  Frost wrote "A Passing Glimpse" in 1926 or so.  Thomas had died nine years earlier.  But, if you will, imagine this as part of their conversation:


Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

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

A train journey.  The same naming of the things of this World.  The same "passing glimpse."

I will never cease to be amazed and moved by the fact that Thomas and Frost found each other when they did.

William MacGeorge, "Water Lilies"

Attentiveness is difficult.  Which is one reason why we need poetry.  It helps us to pay attention.  Think of how many of us look more intently at the things around us by virtue of having one day come across "Adlestrop." We all know that poems and books are not life.  But they can be a finger pointing at the moon.

                       The Salutation

                    These little limbs,
        These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
        Where have ye been?  Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

                    When silent I
        So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
        How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

                    I that so long
        Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear and tongue
        To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.

                    New burnished joys
        Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
        In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organized joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.

                    From dust I rise,
        And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
        A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.

                    A stranger here
        Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
        Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).  (A side-note: Traherne's contemplation of our soul's emergence from "so many thousand thousand years/Beneath the dust" brings to mind Arthur Symons's "The Soul's Progress" (which has appeared here previously): "It enters life it knows not whence; there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before . . .")

We ought never to lose the sense of strangeness (and wonder) articulated by Traherne.  This takes us back to the subject of my previous post: humility.  We should never take anything in the World for granted.  The final stanza of "The Salutation" is particularly beautiful, and provides a corrective "snap out of it!" whenever we are beset with feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction, or malaise.  Another of those true truisms, I'm afraid: existence is a miracle.

William MacGeorge, "River Scene Through Trees"


Fred said...


That "glimpse" is a favorite theme of Frost's. I know of at least two more poems where that appears, and there's probably more that I'm unaware of.

"For Once, Then, Something" and "Two Look at Two"

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, following your post on Humility another delightful one today.
On my morning walk yesterday following a familiar path that runs beside a small river before entering a wood I wandered deep among the profusion of green that signals this season of the year. The combinations of colours; bluebell, ragged robin, the occasional cowslip helped to blur the intrusion of thought, and for a few moments I was lost to myself, the thinking "I" subdued. But all too quickly it intrudes, asking "What flower is this?"

I used to take myself to task for not knowing all the names. I know now there is not enough time to learn them. I am happy to be among them, hearing the sound of the breezes moving among the leaves, watching the play of sunlight on the surface of the water. I am soothed by being here. These moments too can be like the books and poems you mention "a finger pointing at the moon".
Glimpses I firmly believe are remembered, they resurface and make us look again, and if we heed Frost's words "Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in position to look too close",
perhaps we are granted another glimpse.

Thank you for the Thomas Traherne, another of my favourite writers. His Centuries of Meditations I return to often and again.

These lines from him seem appropriate to end on.

All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.

Bruce Floyd said...

Another View of the World
(I am too ignorant to take a stand. I just pass on what I read.)

Apropos the world:I am reading John Gray's new book "The Soul of the Marionette." He discusses Gnosticism. Traditionally, eating the apple was original sin. Gnostics, however, believe Adam and Eve were right to eat the apple, saying that the God that commanded them was not the true God but a demiurge, an evil tyrant. The snake came to free Adam and Eve from slavery. Gnostics believe that having eaten of the tree of knowledge, humankind can rise into a state of conscious innocence (Blake thought this too).

Gray quotes a passage from Lawrence Durrell's "The Avignon Quintet," a modern version of Gnostic vision:

"[T]he bitter central truth of the gnostics is the . . .realization that the world of the Good God was a dead one, and that He had been replaced by a usurper--a God of Evil.. . .Humanity is too frail to face the truth. . .but to anyone. . .with a clear mind, the answer is completely inescapable: Evil rules the day.

"What sort of God[made} this munching world of death and dissolution? . . .What kind of God. . .built this malefic machine of destruction? . . .Only the very spirit of the dark negative death-trend in nature--the sprit of nothingness and auto-annihilation. A world in which we are each other's food, each others prey . . . "

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for referencing those two poems. I'm embarrassed to say that I had never read "Two Look at Two," but I did so after receiving your comment: what a wonderful poem! I don't know how I missed it all these years.

The entire poem is lovely, but the closing lines are particularly beautiful: "A great wave from it going over them,/As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor/Had made them certain earth returned their love." (And the progression from "This, then, is all. What more is there to ask?" to "'This must be all.' It was all." is perfect as well.)

I think "unlooked-for favor" is important: the poetry of both Frost and Thomas is full of these unexpected "favors" or gifts. In my experience, this is usually how these things work out. You can't go looking for them, but you have to be on the look out for what may drop into you lap.

Again, thank you very much.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you for the description of your morning walk and for your thoughts about experiencing versus naming. I think our reactions are similar. (Although I do confess that I wish I were better versed in the identities of trees and flowers and birds!)

My knowledge of Traherne's work is extremely limited: just a few poems I have come across in anthologies. And I have never read any of his prose, so I am unfamiliar with Centuries of Meditations, which I really need to read. The three lines you quote are marvelous, and fit perfectly here. I did a search for them on the Internet, and discovered that they come from his poem "Eden," which I hadn't read before. Thank you.

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: I have only read bits and pieces of Gray's work (and, coincidentally, Mr Ashton has, I seem to recall, mentioned his work here before). As you might expect, I am sympathetic to his critique of the Enlightenment and of the gospel of Progress.

I have not read "The Soul of the Marionette," but from excerpts I have seen, and from your description, it is not my cup of tea. I can understand (to some extent) how a look around the modern world could lead one to Gray's conclusions. But it is not a view that I find congenial.

I like to think that I am realistic about human nature and, for that reason, I reject utopianism. And I am a great admirer of, for instance, Hardy and Schopenhauer and Leopardi, so I am not automatically resistant to a pessimistic view of human nature and of the World. But I think Gray has gone too far in the other direction. This Gnostic business sounds very nasty. (Again, this spouting off by me is based upon a superficial familiarity with Gray's thought.)

In any event, I do appreciate your sharing this, since it does provide another way of looking at these things. As ever, thank you very much for visiting.

Fred said...


I have the complete Frost, and every time I dip into it, I wonder what I will discover this time.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You and I have had similar discussions in the past about Hardy. As you have mentioned before, it is fun to open Hardy's Collected Poems at random to see if you arrive at an old favorite, something once read, but forgotten, or something entirely new. The same is true of Frost. Neither of them ever get old. Which reminds me: it has been a while since I paid a visit to Hardy . . .

Thanks for the follow-up thought.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I agree with you about being better able to identify trees, birds and flowers.
I still try to do so, and often carry a couple of pocket identifier books of wild flowers and birds with me. I decided a few years ago that I wasn't going to let my inability to identify individual plants or birds become an intrusion that spoiled my walks.
Given a choice between experience and naming I think I'd choose experience. Though I'd love to have that marvellous knowledge we see in poets such as John Clare, Edward Thomas and Andrew Young in being able to put the name and the moment together.

I was fortunate enough to be able to get my hands on the two volume edition of Traherne's Centuries many years ago when it was being thrown out by a local college library. I would urge you to look at them. I cannot claim to have read any more than a small portion, but what I have read is simply breath-taking, both in the delight of reading the prose and what is expressed there.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Clare, Thomas, and Young are the poets that come to my mind as well when I think of poets with an encyclopedic knowledge of Nature -- although their knowledge does not get in the way of emotion. I am reminded of Walter de la Mare's "Sotto Voce" (a poem I'm sure you're familiar with): a lovely memorial to Thomas, and to his love for, and knowledge of, Nature -- in this instance, the song of the nightingale.

I appreciate your recommendation of Traherne's Centuries. I've read some excerpts from an edition that is available on the Internet archive, and it is wonderful. I also discovered through the website of The Traherne Association that his complete writings are in the process of being published by D. S. Brewer/Boydell & Brewer. The Centuries appears in Volume V.

Thank you very much for the follow-up comments.

Bovey Belle said...

Ah, Mr Pentz, I spent my formative years learning about nature and came late to poetry. We each have our strengths and I can identify most wild flowers I see. Thank heavens for the poetic guidance and pleasure I get here. I have just fetched Frost's collected poems and read "Two Look at Two" so I could enjoy it too, with greater understanding than if I had not read this post first!

I love Frost's understanding of nature and the woods and pastures ignored by the roads. I love the way - like Thomas - he can capture a moment and use it to enchant us in the future. Of course, Edward Thomas was also at one with nature, and as an apprentice of Richard Jeffries, could give us chapter and verse on flowers and birds and birds' eggs and anything we might encounter in nature. The notes he scrupulously took on his walks - which were more journeys than walks - suffuse his work and provided the meat and bones of it too, be it poetry or prose.

Hardy, likewise, had scarcely to form a thought than he saw it in his minds' eye, had experienced it, had total recall of it (without any note-taking!) from his childhood onwards. An eye for detail, I think you would call it. A writer's eye. A poet's eye, seeing the minutiae of life and celebrating it.

I remember Adlestrop too. I once drove past the turning to it, but didn't turn. It would have spoiled my vision of it. Better to have Thomas's wonderful capturing of a moment than to have the picture shattered by reality.

Thankyou for the introduction to Traherne, of whom I previously knew only by name.

I see I must pick my husband's brains about Gnosticism, as he recently finished a book on the subject.

Oh, and I also read the wrong Durrell brother - Gerald instead of Lawrence!!

Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,

Thank you very much for this wonderful journey from Frost to Thomas and Traherne!

You and your readers are most likely aware of Gerald Finzi's setting of The Salutation. To my mind he has captured the quiet rapture of these verses perfectly. His musical phrases come to my mind involuntarily when I read the poem. I can no longer separate the one from the other!

As a non-native speaker I was introduced to Traherne by Finzi. I am hardly exaggerating when I say that British composers have been my foremost teachers of English literature, simply by instilling love of poetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for stopping by again. It is always good to hear from you.

I agree with you about each of us having our own strengths. Thank you for the kind words about my efforts, but I envy you your knowledge of the natural world. And I owe you thanks as well: over the years I've learned a great deal about that world (and the names of the flora and fauna in it) from reading your blog and from seeing all of your lovely photographs throughout the seasons.

I agree with your decision not to visit Adlestrop, and for exactly those reasons. Although I have seen photographs of the station sign!

Traherne is fairly new to me as well. I'm pleased you liked the poem.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Richter: It is a pleasure to hear from you again. As in the past, you have once more given me an education on musical settings of poems -- I was not aware of Finzi's setting of "The Salutation." Since reading your comment, I have listened to a few performances of it: lovely. I also discovered that it appears in "Dies Natalis," which contains settings of two other poems by Traherne, and of prose from his "Centuries of Meditations" (which Mr Ashton mentioned in his comment above). Thank you very much for this information.

We never know the path that will lead us to poetry, do we? I think it is wonderful that your love of it was to some extent inspired by English composers.

As ever, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate hearing from you.