Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Becoming A Poem

Those who have departed often return unexpectedly.  One then feels ashamed for having failed to properly attend to one's memories of them. This is not a matter of ghosts or of spirits, but of full-bodied presences in the mind's-eye:  when they return, they are right there in front of us.  Silent.

          Last Poem

Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince, Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

Here is the lovely inspiration for Prince's poem:

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."

Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).

I'm surprised that Prince uses "common" rather than Hardy's "prosaic": the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is wonderful.  I'd wager that Hardy would have described himself as prosaic.  Aren't we all?  And "common" as well.  Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't faced the facts.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Midsummer, East Fife" (1936)

The following passage perhaps provides a roundabout instance of what Hardy has in mind.

Thus did he speak.  "I see around me here
Things which you cannot see:  we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left."

William Wordsworth, "Book First: The Wanderer," lines 469-474, The Excursion, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume V (Oxford University Press 1949), page 24.

The lines are spoken by "the Wanderer."  "The Author" has found him drowsing in the sun, "the shadows of the breezy elms above/Dappling his face."  Ibid, lines 440-441.  The Excursion is a diffuse poem, with a tendency towards the long-winded, but one of the things that Wordsworth may be getting at is that we all have it in us to live, like the Wanderer, in our own "peculiar nook of earth."  But does that nook indeed die with us?  Is there "no memorial left" of how we have lived?

Hardy suggests that each of us ("prosaic" though we are), together with our peculiar nook, becomes a poem.  It certainly seems that way when the departed return to visit us.  A sentimental notion, I concede.  But I have no quarrel with sentimentality.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A Castle in Scotland"

I suspect that the subject matter of this post may be traceable to the fact that I have been visiting Thomas Hardy's poetry over the past few weeks.  As I have noted in the past, communings with the departed are a matter-of-fact occurrence in Hardy's poetry.  Things are seen out of the corner of one's eye.  There are tappings on windows and whispers in the boughs of trees. But these signals are never a cause for alarm.  Hardy -- sunk in the past as he was -- treats them as commonplaces.  Who does not think of the dead? And who's to say they are not thinking of us?

Hardy admired the poetry of Charlotte Mew, and he, along with others, helped procure a Civil List Pension for her when she was in financial straits.  The departed are plentiful in her poetry as well.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                                   Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)

In the end, we all return to silence, don't we?

       The Best Thing to Say

The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.

C. H. Sisson, Collected Poems (Carcanet 1998).

"The Best Thing to Say" is one of Sisson's harrowing final poems, a selection of which appeared here five years ago.  He doesn't present a pretty picture.  Thus, it falls upon Thomas Hardy -- the purported "pessimist" -- to provide us with hope.  Yes, each of us returns to silence.  But we each become a poem.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"That Man Couldn't Look Out Of A Window Without Seeing Something That Had Never Been Seen Before"

To state the obvious (and to sound high-falutin' at the same time):  a successful work of art is the product of the keen observation of minute particulars transformed by a receptive, contemplative imagination.  This thought is prompted by a visit to Thomas Hardy's poetry this past week.

People who met him, and recorded their impressions, nearly always mention two things:  his eyes and his quiet, kind, and diffident manner.

"I could scarcely imagine those steady eyes 'in a fine frenzy rolling'; nor would I have expected their calm gaze either to conjure up the beauty of Tess or to read the mind of Napoleon.  But if Hardy did not wear his Muse upon his sleeve, there was yet in the very inconspicuousness of his appearance something unobtrusively impressive.  This impression deepened as I watched him.  The high, broad forehead was very fine; the expression in the initiated, resigned eyes, unforgettable.  They looked as if nothing could ever surprise them again.  They were sad eyes -- very sad -- but unflinching, as though, after long sorrow, a certain serenity had been arrived at.

It was about four o'clock when [J. M.] Barrie and I arrived at Max Gate, and we sat talking over the tea-table until seven.  I had been told that Hardy was the most unassuming, the least pretentious of talkers.  He certainly was an uncompetitive talker.  He seemed to have no desire to impress, persuade, or even amuse, but just to like uncontentiously to exchange ideas in the simplest possible words.  Yet he never said anything that was not to the point, and you could not fail to become more and more aware of his extraordinary perceptivity.  'That man,' Barrie had said of him on our journey down, 'couldn't look out of a window without seeing something that had never been seen before.'"

Cynthia Asquith, "Thomas Hardy at Max Gate," quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 243-244.

                                        Lying Awake

You, Morningtide Star, now are steady-eyed, over the east,
     I know it as if I saw you;
You, Beeches, engrave on the sky your thin twigs, even the least;
     Had I paper and pencil I'd draw you.

You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew,
     I see it as if I were there;
You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew,
     The names creeping out everywhere.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset"

When it comes to Hardy, I am wholeheartedly with Philip Larkin:  "may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?"  Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic," Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.

Make that two readers (at least).  Larkin wrote those words in 1966.  Time has now shown that his final comment holds true for the 20th century as a whole.

"He was a great man, if a sign of that is simplicity and modesty so surprising that they might be childish innocence. . . .[T]he little old man himself, as he entertained us, might have been the youngest and most innocent of us all.  He appeared content to talk of the habits of owls, and of the signs of the weather, of local inns and queer characters, and of the strangeness of hearing in Dorchester by wireless telephony the dancers' feet when an orchestra was playing at a London festival.  Trivial life interested him.  Little things amused him.  Little things, you could see, often had for him a significance which a clever listener failed to grasp.
* * *
Hardy, too, had so innocent a guess into people and their motives that sometimes when talking to him you felt this child was as old as humanity and knew all about us, but that he did not attach importance to his knowledge because he did not know he had it.  Just by chance, in the drift of the talk, there would be a word by Hardy, not only wide of the mark, but apparently not directed to it.  Why did he say it?  On the way home, or some weeks later, his comment would be recalled, and with the revealing light on it.
* * *
If our talk gave out, then there were the reflections of the lively fire playing on the face of the old poet, who contemplated the bright logs, his eyebrows raised, his legs stretched out, his hands between his knees.  That seamed face lost sight of the visitors for a while, and its nervous interest in the gossip changed to the compassionate look of a man who had brooded for long on the world, but was not sure he had made out what it all meant, or could do it the good he desired for it.  It may be true that as a man thinks so is he, and that may be why Hardy's head was satisfying with expected beauty. . . . [W]hen Hardy was in repose his face was that of a seer.  There was no doubt then, no need to wonder what special privilege had admitted him to so close a knowledge of his fellows."

H. M. Tomlinson, "One January Morning," Out of Soundings (1931).

                 Paying Calls

I went by footpath and by stile
     Beyond where bustle ends,
Strayed here a mile and there a mile
     And called upon some friends.

On certain ones I had not seen
     For years past did I call,
And then on others who had been
     The oldest friends of all.

It was the time of midsummer
     When they had used to roam;
But now, though tempting was the air,
     I found them all at home.

I spoke to one and other of them
     By mound and stone and tree
Of things we had done ere days were dim,
     But they spoke not to me.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

Ernest Waterlow (1850-1919), "On the Dorset Coast"

Is each of Hardy's 900-plus poems a masterpiece?  Of course not.  But each of them tells a truth -- however small, however humble -- about what it means to be a human being and about how we make our way through the world.  Call me old-fashioned, but what I find in Hardy's poetry is that rare thing:  wisdom combined with compassion.

"Presently I found myself seated near a good log fire.  A little white dog lay stretched on the hearthrug. Near the chimney-piece I noticed the portrait of Shelley, and on the top of the bookshelf a small bust of Sir Walter Scott.  He came in at last, a little old man (dressed in tweeds after the manner of a country squire) with the same round skull and the same goblin eyebrows and the same eyes keen and alert.  What was it that he reminded me of?  A night hawk? a falcon owl? for I tell you the eyes that looked out of that century-old skull were of the kind that see in the dark."

Llewelyn Powys, in Edmund Blunden, Thomas Hardy (1941), page 159.

  In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

Only a man harrowing clods
     In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
     Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
     From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
     Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
     Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
     Ere their story die.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

Hardy dated the poem "1915," but it had its genesis in something that Hardy had observed, and felt, 45 years earlier.

"I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred.  For instance, the poem entitled 'The Breaking of Nations' contains a feeling that moved me in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, when I chanced to be looking at such an agricultural incident in Cornwall. But I did not write the verses till during the war with Germany of 1914, and onwards.  Query:  where was that sentiment hiding itself during more than 40 years?"

Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work and Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.

"I loved a thing he told about young trees when first planted -- how, the instant their roots came in contact with the ground, they begin to sigh."

William Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900 (1931), quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered, page 109.

Bernard Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Golden Mean

In a recent post I opined that, as one ages, things drop away.  For instance, the daily news of the world gives us plenty to be alarmed and incensed about, but it no longer seems worth the trouble.  The catalogue of horrors and absurdities has ever been thus:  not just last week or last year, but for centuries, millennia.  Why expend energy on it?  Our putative "progress" as a species is a nice fairy tale.  Mind you, this is not an argument for cynicism or misanthropy.  That the world is a madhouse does not relieve us of our duty to behave decently.

And, of course, there is still the matter of getting through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.  Perhaps this is why I have become fonder and fonder of Horace and Robert Herrick in my senescence.  They are both oases of beautifully conveyed good sense.

Wise they, that, with a cautious fear,
Not always thro' the ocean steer,
Nor, whilst they think the winds will roar,
Do thrust too near the rocky shore:
To those that choose the golden mean
The waves are smooth, the skies serene;
They want the baseness of the poor's retreat,
And envy'd houses of the great.
Storms often vex the lofty oak,
High mountains feel the thunder's stroke;
And lofty towers, when winds prevail,
Are ruin'd with a greater fall:
A breast prepar'd in either state
Or fears or hopes a change of Fate;
'Tis Jove the same that winter brings
And melts the frost by pleasing springs:
Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,
And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so:
Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,
His harp awakes his sleepy muse,
Nor always bends his threatening bow:
When Fortune sends a stormy wind,
Then show a brave and present mind;
And when with too indulgent gales
She swells too much, then furl thy sails.

Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book II, Ode 10, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684).

"The golden mean."  This sort of thing is regarded as a cliché by soi-disant sophisticated moderns.  Old, unironic, sentimental stuff.  Too obvious to bear repeating.  But would I rather read the poetry of Horace or a contemporary novel?  Next question.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Ramsey Island, Off Pembrokeshire" (1876)

I have also become increasingly fond of sea-faring metaphors for life, which are abundant in Horace and Herrick.  My time on various bodies of water has been limited to rowboats, an occasional canoe, and car ferries, but there is something about the notion of life as a sea-voyage that strikes my fancy.  Perhaps it is the timelessness of the image.  Last year I spent a great deal of time musing over the numerous lovely funereal epigrams for drowned mariners that one finds in The Greek Anthology.  And then there is this sort of thing:  "Run out the boat, my broken comrades . . . Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades . . . Put out to sea, ignoble comrades . . ." (Louis MacNeice, "Thalassa.")


He, who has suffer'd ship-wrack, fears to sail
Upon the seas, though with a gentle gale.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).  This has been identified as a translation of line 8 in Poem 7, Book II, of Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 685.

                            Safety on the Shore

What though the sea be calm?  Trust to the shore:
Ships have been drown'd, where late they danced before.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.  It has been suggested that the source of the poem is a passage in Epistle IV of Seneca's Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales: "Do not trust her calm; in a moment the sea is in turmoil.  The same day the ships dance in the games, they are engulfed."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 577.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Falmouth Harbour" (1883)

Not surprisingly, there are echoes of Horace throughout Herrick's poetry. Thus, for example, the following poem by Herrick is reminiscent of the ode by Horace that is set forth above.

      Good Precepts, or Counsel

In all thy need, be thou possest
Still with a well-prepared breast:
Nor let the shackles make thee sad;
Thou canst but have, what others had.
And this for comfort thou must know,
Times that are ill won't still be so.
Clouds will not ever power down rain;
A sullen day will clear again.
First, peals of thunder we must hear,
Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.

"Times that are ill won't still be so" (line 6) may have its source in Horace's lines translated by Creech as:  "Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,/And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 706.  "First, peals of thunder we must hear,/Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear" (lines 9 and 10) may show the influence of Horace's "Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,/His harp awakes his sleepy muse,/Nor always bends his threatening bow."  Ibid.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Cawsand Bay" (1877)

Finally, out of nowhere comes this:

         Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

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

I suppose that pursuing the golden mean is to a great degree a matter of waiting.

"Everything which seems to perish merely changes.  Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind.  Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course; you will see that no star in our firmament is extinguished, but that they all set and rise in alternation.  Summer has gone, but another year will bring it again; winter lies low, but will be restored by its own proper months; night has overwhelmed the sun, but day will soon rout the night again.  The wandering stars retrace their former courses; a part of the sky is rising unceasingly, and a part is sinking."

Seneca (translated by Richard Gummere), Epistle XXXVI, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.

Charles Parsons Knight, "The Kyles of Bute" (1893)

Monday, June 15, 2015


I am always grateful for the unexpected gifts that poetry provides.  For instance, a few days ago I discovered this:

                              A Stranger

Her face was like sad things:  was like the lights
Of a great city, seen from far off fields,
Or seen from sea:  sad things, as are the fires
Lit in a land of furnaces by night:
Sad things, as are the reaches of a stream
Flowing beneath a golden moon alone.
And her clear voice, full of remembrances,
Came like faint music down the distant air.
As though she had a spirit of dead joy
About her, looked the sorrow of her ways:
If light there be, the dark hills are to climb
First:  and if calm, far over the long sea.
Fallen from all the world apart she seemed,
Into a silence and a memory.
What had the thin hands done, that now they strained
Together in such passion?  And those eyes,
What saw they long ago, that now they dreamed
Along the busy streets, blind but to dreams?
Her white lips mocked the world, and all therein:
She had known more than this; she wanted not
This, who had known the past so great a thing.
Moving about our ways, herself she moved
In things done, years remembered, places gone.
Lonely, amid the living crowds, as dead,
She walked with wonderful and sad regard:
With us, her passing image:  but herself
Far over the dark hills and the long sea.

Lionel Johnson, Ireland, with Other Poems (1897).

Where had this poem been all these years?   What a beautiful and wondrous thing it is.

Because I am fond of the poets of the Nineties, I was familiar with a few of Lionel Johnson's poems, but this had eluded me.  As it happens, it is not typical of his verse, which usually consists of rhymed stanzas or non-stanzaic poems in heroic couplets.  In contrast, "A Stranger" is written in unrhymed blank verse.  I have the sense (and I may well be wrong) that Johnson was so emotionally taken by the woman who is the subject of the poem that he wanted to set down the experience with as much immediacy as he could.  In this, he has wonderfully succeeded.

There is a mystery at the heart of "A Stranger":  the mystery of the human soul.  To his great credit, Johnson  neither caricatures nor patronizes the woman:  he recognizes the uniqueness of her soul, and this is what moves him.  Yes, he does speculate, but he never violates the dignity of her soul. Pity is a difficult and delicate thing, for we can never presume to know what lies within the soul of another.

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

The mystery of each human soul also lies at the heart of a favorite poem of mine, which appeared here back in November of 2011.  As is the case with "A Stranger," it is a Victorian poem that does not sound or feel "Victorian" as we tend to think of that term.

                  The Knight in the Wood

The thing itself was rough and crudely done,
Cut in coarse stone, spitefully placed aside
As merest lumber, where the light was worst
On a back staircase.  Overlooked it lay
In a great Roman palace crammed with art.
It had no number in the list of gems,
Weeded away long since, pushed out and banished,
Before insipid Guidos over-sweet,
And Dolce's rose sensationalities,
And curly chirping angels spruce as birds.
And yet the motive of this thing ill-hewn
And hardly seen did touch me.  O, indeed,
The skill-less hand that carved it had belonged
To a most yearning and bewildered heart,
There was such desolation in its work;
And through its utter failure the thing spoke
With more of human message, heart to heart,
Than all these faultless, smirking, skin-deep saints;
In artificial troubles picturesque,
And martyred sweetly, not one curl awry --
Listen; a clumsy knight who rode alone
Upon a stumbling jade in a great wood
Belated.  The poor beast with head low-bowed
Snuffing the treacherous ground.  The rider leant
Forward to sound the marish with his lance.
You saw the place was deadly; that doomed pair,
The wretched rider and the hide-bound steed
Feared to advance, feared to return -- That's all!

John Leicester Warren, Rehearsals: A Book of Verses (1870).  "Marish" (line 25) is, according to the OED, a "poetic, archaic, and regional" form of "marsh."  A note:  when Warren republished the poem 23 years later, he changed "heart" to "brain" in line 14.  John Leicester Warren, Poems Dramatic and Lyrical (1893).  I have used the original 1870 version.

The ostensible subject of the poem is a work of art.  But, of course, the true subject of the poem is the artist and his "human message," his "most yearning and bewildered heart."  Like Johnson, Warren does not patronize the subject of his poem.  Again, what we are given is a moving depiction of a unique and unfathomable soul.

Albert Goodwin, "Landscape"

I have sometimes made hasty and ill-advised judgments about other people, which I will always regret.  Given how little we know about ourselves, we ought to tread lightly when it comes to the mystery of others.  We should not presume to know too much.

As long-time readers have heard here before, "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")  As Johnson and Warren show us, there is a thread that connects us all, if only we look.  But a mystery always remains unplumbed.

     The previous owner:
I know it all, --
     Down to the very cold he felt.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 168.

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 85.

     A lantern
Entered a house
     On the withered moor.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 283.

Albert Goodwin, "Durham Cathedral" (1910)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


As I suggested in a recent post, we ought not to think so much.

"Thoughts are in a great measure masters of things, and which is more, 'tis in your own power to think as you please:  Therefore don't suffer Opinion to cheat you any longer.  Disengage from the Tyranny of Fancy; and then as if you doubled some dangerous cape, you'll have nothing but a steady course, a smooth sea, and a land-locked bay to receive you."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 12, Section 22, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), pages 231-232.

Here is another translation of the same passage:

"Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power.  Take away then, when thou choosest, thy opinion, and like a mariner, who has doubled the promontory, thou wilt find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay."

George Long (translator), The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus (Second Edition 1880), page 201.

Marcus Aurelius does not use "opinion" in our modern sense of, say, "opinions" about the political or social issues of the day.  Rather, his use of the word embodies the key Stoic concept that the only thing over which we have control in life is our own conduct, which includes our impressions of (i. e., our "opinions" about) external circumstances (past, present, and future).  Accordingly, we should not let those impressions run riot.  The world is what it is.  Thinking about what might have been, what ought to be at the moment, or what may lie ahead is a waste of time and energy.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Christopher Meadows (1863-1947), "Saltcoats Harbour"

It is worth remembering that this is not a unique Stoic concept.  For instance, it is reminiscent of (to me at least) the idea of non-attachment that is found in Buddhism and Taoism.  Modern culture is constantly entreating us to devote our thoughts and attention to chimeras and fantasies (as well as to the media-fueled frenzy of daily "crises").  This is on top of our natural human tendency to worry about the past, the present, and the future.  Enough is enough.

Mind you, I am not claiming to be free of "the Tyranny of Fancy."  Nor am I lying at anchor in a calm harbor of non-attachment.  However, here's a good feature of the aging process:  things drop away; the absurdity and the emptiness of humanity's antics become more apparent with each passing year.  Peace and quiet seem to come of themselves, if one lets them (knock on wood).  "Peace comes dropping slow."  "Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night."  Or so one hopes.

                    Evening Quiet

Early cicadas stop their trilling;
Points of light, new fireflies, pass to and fro.
The taper burns clear and smokeless;
Beads of bright dew hang on the bamboo mat.
Not yet will I enter the house to sleep,
But walk awhile beneath the eaves.
The rays of the moon slant into the low verandah;
The cool breeze fills the tall trees.
Letting loose the feelings, life flows on easily;
The scene entered deep into my heart.
What is the secret of this state?
To have nothing small in one's mind.

Po Chu-i (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 175.

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Like all sound advice, this is easier said than done.  The mind is a perpetual motion machine, isn't it?  For someone like Po Chu-i, the stilling of thoughts can occur out in the backyard at the end of the day.  However, for those of us who are inveterate daydreamers, sunk in reverie (the mind ever humming away), there is a tendency to think:  "If only I could [fill in the blank], then I could begin to live."  Thus, for example, the notion of the perfect place tends to haunt us.


You are in love with a country
Where people laugh in the sun
And the people are warm as the sunshine and live and move easily
And women with honeycoloured skins and men with no frowns on their
Sit on white terraces drinking red wine
While the sea spreads peacock feathers on cinnamon sands
And palms weave sunlight into sheaves of gold
And at night the shadows are indigo velvet
And there is dancing to soft, soft, soft guitars
Played by copper fingers under a froth of stars.

Perhaps your country is where you think you will find it.
Or perhaps it has not yet come or perhaps it has gone.
Perhaps it is east of the sun and west of the moon.
Perhaps it is a country called the Hesperides
And Avalon and Atlantis and Eldorado:
A country which Gauguin looked for in Tahiti and Lawrence in Mexico,
And whether they found it only they can say, and they not now.
Perhaps you will find it where you alone can see it,
But if you can see it, though no one else can, it will be there,
It will be yours.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (Heinemann 1947).

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"

But isn't thinking what humans do?  Isn't it in our nature to run through all of the possibilities, to consider all of the choices?  What's more, reading a poem involves thinking.  So does looking at a painting.  This post is arguably nothing but an exercise in escapism via thought.  I understand the point.   And I recognize that Stoicism, Buddhism, and Taoism are sometimes criticized for their "quietism."  (A wonderful word, actually.)

But, again, enough is enough.  We are too often in thrall to "the Tyranny of Fancy."  And "to have nothing small in one's mind" is, I think, something to aspire to.

                         Boats at Night

How lovely is the sound of oars at night
     And unknown voices, borne through windless air,
From shadowy vessels floating out of sight
     Beyond the harbour lantern's broken glare
To those piled rocks that make on the dark wave
     Only a darker stain.  The splashing oars
Slide softly on as in an echoing cave
     And with the whisper of the unseen shores
Mingle their music, till the bell of night
     Murmurs reverberations low and deep
That droop towards the land in swooning flight
     Like whispers from the lazy lips of sleep.
The oars grow faint.  Below the cloud-dim hill
The shadows fade and now the bay is still.

Edward Shanks, The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).

"Discharge Opinion, and you are safe; and pray who can hinder you from doing it?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book 12, Section 25.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Leaf

Spring has peaked.  Summer is near.  Yet earlier this week I found myself pondering the falling of the leaves.  My out-of-season thoughts were prompted by having come across this:


Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever:  that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose (Carcanet 1994).  The poem is titled "Imitation" because it is a translation by Leopardi from a poem in French ("La Feuille": "The Leaf") by Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).

I consider Leopardi to be the King of Pessimism.  To wit:

"What is life?  The journey of a crippled and sick man walking with a heavy load on his back up steep mountains and through wild, rugged, arduous places, in snow, ice, rain, wind, burning sun, for many days without ever resting night and day to end at a precipice or ditch, in which inevitably he falls."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino), 4162-4163 (January 17, 1826) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1809.

Yes, I know:  Whew!  And, mind you, this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  Leopardi, like Schopenhauer (who, not surprisingly, greatly admired him), ultimately came to the conclusion that, given our fate, we would be better off if we had never been born.  Again:  Whew!  

In light of all this, the life of the ever-wandering leaf in "Imitation" seems like a carefree stroll in the park, doesn't it?

David Bates, "A Beech Wood, Malvern, Worcestershire" (1889)

Leopardi's poem brought to mind one of my favorite poems by Derek Mahon (or by anybody, for that matter), which has appeared here before (in autumn).


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

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

As I have suggested in the past, one thing leads to another when it comes to poetry.  Perhaps it was Leopardi's line "I go where everything goes" that led me on to "Leaves," with its "dead leaves/On their way to the river."  In any case, I was now sunk deep in autumn, while outside all was green and blue and bright.

John Gardiner Crawford
"Little Burn, Bonskeid" (1980)

Six poems later in Leopardi's The Canti, I found this autumnal reverie:

     Fragment: From the Greek of Simonides

All human things last only a short time;
The old blind man of Chios
Spoke but the simple truth:
As are the lives of leaves,
So are the lives of men.
But few there are who take
Those words to heart; while everyone receives
Unruly hope, the child
Of youth, to live with him.
As long as our first age
Is fresh and blooming still,
The vacant headstrong soul
Will nourish many pleasant dreams, all vain,
Careless of death and age; the healthy man
Has no regard for illness or disease.
But he must be a fool
Who cannot see how rapidly youth flies,
How close the cradle lies
To the funereal fire.
So you who are about
To step into the land
Where Pluto holds his court,
Enjoy, since life is short,
The pleasures hard at hand.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose.

Coincidentally, I posted a different translation of Simonides's poem last October.  As I noted at the time, the "man of Chios" (line 2) refers to Homer, who was traditionally thought to have been born on Chios, an island in the Aegean Sea in the region known as Ionia.  The lines "As are the lives of leaves/So are the lives of men" echo a passage in Book VI of The Iliad.  The passage was rendered by Alexander Pope as follows:

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground:
Another race the foll'wing spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are passed away.

Here is a modern translation by Robert Fagles:

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again.  And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

Alec Dixon, "Autumn, High Beach, Essex" (1988)

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may have noticed, I am wont to present a coda to the topic at hand by presenting a brief Chinese or Japanese poem that seems to get to the heart of the matter.  Thus, the following haiku brings our autumnal idyll to a close.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 364.

What Issa has to say does not supplant what Leopardi or Mahon or Simonides or Homer have to say.  But he provides a lovely distillation that puts everything into perspective.

Come to think of it, here is a final thought by Leopardi:

"His amusement was to count the stars as he walked."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, 280 (October 16, 1820), page 185.

Further perspective.

John Inchbold, "A Study, in March" (1855)