Thursday, July 30, 2015

Echoes And Reflections

As I have observed here before, the older I get, the simpler Life seems to become.  I'm dumbfounded at the amount of extraneous luggage my mind carried around for years.  All those eventualities that never materialized, good or bad.  Scores of roundabouts and dead-ends, all bound for nowhere.

Yesterday afternoon -- the sky absolutely clear -- I walked through a tunnel of trees, beneath a canopy of interwoven branches.  Overhead, a thousand shades of green, shot through with blue and yellow.  "Life is too short," I thought, "for anything but this."

Cosmic trivia
we all are, but none of us
are unessential.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Random House 1972).

In the early 1960s, Auden began to write short poems in imitation of haiku: seventeen syllables in three lines.  He usually, but not always, used the traditional number of syllables per line: 5-7-5.  The poems by Auden in this post are all in this form.  Auden's "haiku" tend to be more philosophical and less imagistic than traditional haiku.  But he captures well the coy, oblique directness of the form.  No "symbols" or "metaphors" or "allegories," mind you.  But depth upon depth of implication.

Reading Auden's short poems, I began to think of Robert Herrick, and then of Basho.

      Upon Prew His Maid

In this little urn is laid
Prewdence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 782 (1648).  A side-note:  Herrick was fond of his maid Prewdence (or Prudence), and wrote several poems about her.  This "epitaph" was actually written, with affection, while she was alive.  In fact, she outlived Herrick by four years.

     In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
     Free of all things.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 26.

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

All of us are walking the same paths, aren't we?  Just as each human being has been doing for millennia.  No wonder that a poet from the 20th-century and two poets from the 17th-century sometimes seem to echo each other.

Thoughts of his own death,
like the distant roll
of thunder at a picnic.

W. H. Auden, from "Marginalia," City Without Walls and Other Poems (Random House 1969).  An aside:  this is one of the "haiku" in which Auden uses the requisite 17 syllables, but alters the syllable count in each line to a non-traditional 5-5-7.

      After Autumn, Winter

Die ere long I'm sure, I shall;
After leaves, the tree must fall.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides Poem 1058.

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

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 288.

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), "Willows at Flatford, Suffolk"

Each "modern" era's self-flattering belief that it embodies the cutting-edge of humanity's "progress" is quaint and risible.  As I have noted on more than one occasion:  "Progress?  What progress?"  I suspect that your experience is similar to mine:  if you turn on the television after the latest outrage has occurred somewhere in the world, a panel of "experts" will be expressing incredulity at the atrocity, and will be debating (with shock on their faces) how this sort of thing can be "explained" given the advanced state of enlightenment in which we now live.

Do poets live in a simpler world?

A signpost points him out his road:
But names no place,
Numbers no distance.

W. H. Auden, from "Symmetries and Asymmetries," About the House (Random House 1965).

               Man's Dying-Place Uncertain

Man knows where first he ships himself; but he
Never can tell, where shall his landing be.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 468.

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture, page 179.

Robert Ball, "Mrs Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

Looking at the poems that appear in this post, I notice that there is no shortage of musing over our mortality.  But how could it be otherwise? Poetry, unlike "progress," is about the individual human soul.  The soul, unless distracted by the noise around it, is concerned with Love and Death. "All poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  So says Edward Thomas.  But I would respectfully and deferentially add this:  elegiac love-poetry.

What is Death?  A Life
disintegrating into
smaller simpler ones.

W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems.

                         On Himself

Some parts may perish; die thou canst not all:
The most of thee shall scape the funeral.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 554.

     A clear waterfall;
Into the ripples
     Fall green pine needles.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 90.

Thomas Corsan Morton (1859-1928), "Sunny Woodlands"


Maggie Turner said...

A thoughtful piece to follow the last.

Anonymous said...


Below are the first, third, and last paragraphs of Joseph Addison's essay on his visit to Westminster Abbey, an account of his wandering among the many graves. It makes him pensive, though not melancholy, and he meditates on human mortality. I find the last paragraph splendid. We can hardly call Addison's conclusion revelatory: we all know it. We forget, though, and it's good of Addison to remind us.

When I am in a serious humor, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey; where the gloominess of the place and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I yesterday passed a whole afternoon in the churchyard, the cloisters, and the church, amusing myself with the tombstones and inscriptions that I met with in those several regions of the dead. Most of them recorded nothing else of the buried person but that he was born upon one day and died upon another; the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances that are common to all mankind.
Upon my going into the church, I entertained myself with the digging of a grave; and saw in every shovelful of it that was thrown up the fragment of a bone or skull intermixed with a kind of fresh mouldering earth that some time or other had a place in the composition of a human body. Upon this, I began to consider with myself what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness, and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.
I have left the repository of our English kings for the contemplation of another day, when I shall find my mind disposed for so serious an amusement. I know that entertainments of this nature are apt to raise dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds and gloomy imaginations; but for my own part, though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy, and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this means I can improve myself with those objects which others consider with terror. When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow. When I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.

Bruce Floyd said...

Very like leaves
upon this earth are the generations of men--
old leaves, cast on the ground by wind, young leaves
the greening forest bears when spring comes in.
So mortals pass: one generation flowers
even as another day dies away.
--Homer, The Iliad, Book VI

The one basic, and haunting, truth about a self-conscious being is that it is mortal. Homer's words, written millennia ago, mock all pretentious talk of progress. What a monstrous juxtaposition or absurd coupling when we acknowledge that a woman being stoned to death was recorded by a barbarian with a cell phone.

So much for progress. As Housman says, "It rains into the sea / And still the sea is salt."

Nancy Reyes said...

Linked and quote taken for my blog. You have a lovely blog.

John Ashton said...

Another wonderful post Mr Pentz. I'm always happy to see Robert Herrick and the haiku of Basho.
The short pieces by Auden are completely new to me. I have to confess he is not a poet I have read very much.
We have recently returned from our holiday in Greece and have to say it was perfect evidence of the distortions and exaggerations the media can cause. In spite of the dire warnings in the press and on TV and radio before we left, that the banks would be closed, ATM machines not working,and shops short of supplies.
Nothing of the kind was true. In fact one of the biggest problems the locals are experiencing is the major fall in visitor numbers as a response to the wild stories in the media which is seriously affecting the income on which some of smaller islands significantly rely in the summer months.
One of the delights of our time on the island was to be able to forget for a while much of the clutter that too often fills our minds. To be able to wake in the morning, breakfast overlooking the Icarian Sea and then walk among the olive groves and out among the hills under clear blue skies was, as you say, to realise that life is too short and we must savour these moments when we can.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Turner: Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post. And thank you as well for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the passages from Addison, which are apt, and lovely. I agree that it is good to be reminded of these things, and the reminding is, as Addison says, not necessarily an occasion for gloom. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Yes, the lines from Homer are wonderful, aren't they? As you know, three of the lines (in a different translation) appeared here a few posts ago in a passage from Marcus Aurelius. It is a universal image, isn't it? One that appears throughout time and throughout the world. Which explains why Homer's lines seem to resonate with most people.

Thank you for the lovely lines from Housman, which fit well here.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Reyes: Thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you'll return. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I'm happy to hear that your vacation in Greece went well. It sounds lovely, particularly the walks among the olive groves overlooking the sea. Your comment that the Greeks are suffering fallout from the media hysteria is sad to hear. Typical of how the media works these days, unfortunately.

I'm pleased you liked the post. As for Auden, I confess that I am of two minds about his poetry: there are things that are wonderful, but a great deal of it fails to reach me. But the good things are enough to keep me returning.

Thank you for taking the time to visit, and welcome back.

Unknown said...

As an imitation of the imitations of haiku, I offer the following:

Death is not darkness
but something beyond this light
yet a mystery

I offer this in anticipation of my religious retreat which begins this afternoon -- see Beyond Eastrod for details /

-- and, before I depart, I thank you for another wonderful posting at your site. May you have a beautiful day within this thing we call the light.

Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: Thank you very much for the haiku, which is lovely. I wish you well in your retreat: I hope that it is a time of serenity and peace.

Thank you for your kind words about the post, and, as always, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Take care.

John Medlin said...

Congratulations to Anonymous for his long quotation from Joseph Addison's essay. Apart from being very apt it demonstrates the stately manliness of so much of eighteenth century prose - a far cry from the sloppy 'demotic' praticed by many writers today. I may add I spent an afternoon myself in Westminster Abbey a good few years ago now mulling on the themes discussed by Addison. Unfortunately I did not produce an essay - or any essay! - as good as his.
I spring to the defence of W. H. Auden: for someone who was universally acknowledged as the great mid-twentieth century master of English poetry, a worthy successor to Yeats and Eliot, it is remarkable how quickly his work has fallen into neglect. Simple analysis of his poems will demonstrate that he was indeed a great technical master of language; analysis of his themes will demonstrate the extraordinary depth and width of his knowledge and interests; admittedly, analysis will also reveal his ever-growing tendency to adopt a grating and soppy 'old womanish' tone which undercuts the seriousness and originality of what he has to say. Irritating though it is in his later poems, it can be easily 'edited out' as one reads. As Mr Pentz noted in a previous reply to a comment of mine, Auden's propensity to throw in unusual words culled from his wide reading in the Oxford English Dictionary (the full version being several volumes long) is also unsettling.
However, the real reason at root as to why Auden is now so forgotten, as is Joseph Addison, and indeed Yeats and Eliot - for not so many people actually read them anymore - is that in the space of a mere sixty years since the 'cultural revolution' of the 1960s the entire Judeo-Christian foundation which underlay all education, thought and the arts in Europe and the Americas has been deliberately overthrown by our political and 'intellectual' elites and replaced by, astonishingly, nothing! If you don't understand the roots out of which Auden writes you will not understand the technique or the import of his poems.
We have grievously slimmed down the very content of our minds in the Western world (and restocking them with technological white noise is no substitute). It is one of the joys of reading your First Known When Lost blog that singlehandedly you insist on putting some REAL poetry, and beautiful art images, back in our minds.

Monophthalmos Rex said...

I, too, really enjoyed reading this post, Mr. Pentz. And, having lived in Greece for some time, I can attest to Mr. Ashton's experience. How funny it was to read in the International Herald Tribune of some riot that had happened in Athens the night before, with pictures seeming to show the whole city in flames, having heard or seen nothing of that trouble, in spite of living less than a mile away. And how disheartening to realize that those whose job is, ostensibly, at least, to put events into a proper context (such as, say, a "riot" in the context of a culture of student and union unrest, protest, and burning whatever they can) either were ignorant of that context or had decided to ignore it to get their piece on the front page.

Thucydides was an untrained amateur, but was more right, it seems to me, on more things than the whole legion of today's professionals and "experts" who type and type and type on this great treadmill called Progress.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Medlin: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I can only hope that, to some small extent, I may be serving the goal you identify in the final paragraph of your comment. I completely agree with your assessment of the state of our culture.

Your points about Auden are well taken. I take his technical mastery of verse and prosody as a given: I doubt if any poet of the 20th century could surpass him in that regard. (This is something that he recognized: "Vain? Not very, except/about his knowledge of metre,/and his friends." A haiku from "Profile.") But I feel about Auden the same way I feel about Frost: sometimes I want to throw the book across the room when either of them becomes enthralled with their own cleverness and wit. Of course, they were both clever and witty (in their own ways), but they didn't know when to edit themselves. Still, each of them wrote poems that I cannot live without.

Your point about the current neglect of Auden perhaps being attributable to a lack of knowledge of his cultural background by potential readers hadn't occurred to me before. For that matter, I confess that my lack of knowledge of English culture probably disables me from understanding of great deal of his poetry, particularly his early work. But -- please bear with me here -- part of me thinks that perhaps he was a bit over-promoted at the outset as the next "great" English poet after Eliot and Yeats. (Personally, I would say after Hardy!) There is no doubt that Auden wrote a number of imperishable poems. But, to use your apt phrase, there is a great deal that needs to be "edited out."

As always, thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Monophthalmos Rex: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the post.

Your thoughts on your time in Greece, and the disinformation presented in the media while you were there, are interesting, but, sadly (as you know), not surprising. I needn't tell you that nearly all media "reporting" these days is agenda-driven, with most of it written (or spoken), as you say, by those who believe they are acting in the service of their idea of Progress. Your closing description is perfect.

Although I suppose to some extent it has ever been thus. Humbert Wolfe's poem (which I'm sure you're familiar with) comes to mind:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.

But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Of course, Wolfe was writing in the UK. I wouldn't wish to single out British journalists: it's a case of fill in the blank with a nationality of choice.

Thank you for stopping by again. It's always good to hear from you.