What could be purer? Or more serene? What could hold more mystery, while at the same time providing the calm assurance that all is well? It is hard to turn away from. Closing the door on it seems a betrayal. But there it remains, impassive and perfect. It is not going anywhere.
In a sun-crazed orchard
Busy with blossomings
This loafer, unaware of
What toil or weather brings,
Lumpish sleeps -- a chrysalis
Waiting, no doubt, for wings.
And when he does get active,
It's not for business -- no
Bee-lines to thyme and heather,
No earnest to-and-fro
Of thrushes: pure caprice tells him
Where and how to go.
All he can ever do
Is to be entrancing,
So that a child may think,
Upon a chalk-blue chancing,
"Today was special. I met
A piece of the sky dancing."
C. Day Lewis, The Room and Other Poems (Jonathan Cape 1965).
Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)
A brief aside before we proceed further into blue: C. Day Lewis's description of the butterfly's way of moving through the world is reminiscent of a poem by Robert Graves that has appeared here before.
The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has -- who knows so well as I? --
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
Robert Graves, Poems 1926-1930 (1931).
As much as we may admire the single-minded and diligent bees of the world, isn't it the butterflies that charm us?
I am reminded of the Emperor Hadrian's death-bed description of his soul: animula vagula blandula. "My little wand'ring sportful Soul." (John Donne, 1611.) "Poor little, pretty, fluttering thing." (Matthew Prior, 1709.) "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite." (Lord Byron, 1806.) A butterfly making its way, this way and that, around a garden.
Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)
"A piece of the sky dancing" naturally leads to "sky-flakes":
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).
Flowers that fly and flakes of the sky lead in turn to this lovely thought:
A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly, --
The sky of autumn.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page xxxii.
Francis Dodd, "Ely" (1926)
It all comes back to the sky, doesn't it? But perhaps my opening paean was too simplistic. Robert Frost is infinitely more canny (and eloquent) about these things than I can ever hope to be. He understands the seductiveness of the sky, but . . .
Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet) --
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).
Frost has a point. I ought not to get too carried away. The sky -- perfect, but impassive -- is no place to dwell. Our world is one of butterflies and birds and flowers. As he says in "Birches": "Earth's the right place for love."
John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)
So let us, then, keep the blue of the sky in perspective. Yes, there are times when we look up into it and say: I wish this moment could last for ever. Yet, here is Frost again in "Birches": "I'd like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over." Our world is one of fragmentary blue. But not any the less lovely for that.
The lake lay blue below the hill.
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.
The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.
Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).
Still, I persist in thinking that the blue of the sky remains the standard by which we judge all else. Where would the infinite, ever-changing blues of the water be without it? And what of the trees -- green, or gold and red, or empty -- that stand before it?
Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.
Andrew Young, in Leonard Clark (editor), The Collected Poems of Andrew Young (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).
Now I hear the water and the trees say: Ah, but where would the blue of the sky be without us?
Gerald Dewsbury, "Sycamore and Oak" (1992)