Friday, October 9, 2015


Autumn is always the same:  each year we make the same outward and inward passage.  The quickening rise to brilliance.  The inevitable denouement (which is known from the start).  Bittersweet and pensive wistfulness.  Wistful and bittersweet pensiveness.  Pensive and wistful bittersweetness.  We know autumn well.  Or so it seems.

Autumn is never the same:  you are not who you were last autumn.  And who was the person who passed through that long-vanished autumn, x years ago?  That never-to-be-forgotten autumn?  Only a few wispy revenants remain.

            On Inishmaan
            (Isles of Aran)

In the twilight of the year,
Here, about these twilight ways,
When the grey moth night drew near,
Fluttering on a faint flying,
I would linger out the day's
Delicate and moth-grey dying.

Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
Should enfold me, and release
Some old peace to dwell with me.
I would quiet the long crying
Of my heart with mournful peace,
The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).

Samuel Palmer, "The Weald of Kent" (c. 1833)

"The twilight of the year."  Perfect.  But, as Symons suggests, for all of the loss that attends it, autumn -- like twilight -- can be a source of peace.  Yet it is a peculiar sort of peace:  a combination of exhilaration and sadness, the two of them changing places from moment to moment or, quite often, present together at the same time.
                 Into the Twilight

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

W. B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

I confess that I love this sort of thing.  Unashamedly, unapologetically, and without irony.  What a wrong turning the 20th century was.

Samuel Palmer, "The Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)

Yeats, Symons, and the other poets of the Nineties are in their element when it comes to twilight and autumn.  Hence, as one might expect, autumn twilight brings them to the very heart of the matter:  shadows, fleeting gleams, hopeless love, lost love, murmuring waters, mist, dreams, desires, the moon-washed sea . . .

              Autumn Twilight

The long September evening dies
In mist along the fields and lanes;
Only a few faint stars surprise
The lingering twilight as it wanes.

Night creeps across the darkening vale;
On the horizon tree by tree
Fades into shadowy skies as pale
As moonlight on a shadowy sea.

And, down the mist-enfolded lanes,
Grown pensive now with evening,
See, lingering as the twilight wanes,
Lover with lover wandering.

Arthur Symons, London Nights (1895).

Like Yeats, I would love to live in a "grey twilight" world.  Like Symons, I would love to "linger out the day's/Delicate and moth-grey dying."  Is this quaint daydreaming, mere escapism?  It depends upon what one thinks of the 21st century.

Samuel Palmer, "The Timber Wain" (c. 1833)

Yeats wrote the following poem on the other side of the fin de siècle.  Does it reveal him as having moved beyond the twilight world of the Nineties and its ofttimes autumnal mood?

     The Coming of Wisdom with Time

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

W. B. Yeats, The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910).

Yeats is implying that a poem such as "Into the Twilight" involved some youthful "lying," some aesthetic "sway[ing]" of "leaves and flowers in the sun."  Yes, that poem, and many like it, were indeed a product of their time.

But what of "the root is one"?  I'm not at all certain that the ever-increasing rhetoric and self-dramatization of Yeats's later poetry brought him any closer to that root.  I think that, at their best, the poets of the Nineties are exactly right about "the root":  twilight and autumn (and, of course, autumn twilight) are indeed at the heart of the matter.  Withering into the truth.

Poetry and art do not "progress."  Has modern art "progressed" beyond Samuel Palmer?  Has contemporary poetry "progressed" beyond the poetry of the Nineties?

Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)


Fred said...


Different? Yes. Progressed? No

Mathias Richter said...

Inspired by the poetry of Yeats the English composer Arnold Bax became obsessed with Ireland in his youth. One may also say he became obsessed with twilight. Titles like "Pensive Twilight", "The Grey Dancer in the Twilight" or just "Into the Twilight" represent this interest. The last mentioned is a tone poem written in 1908 and prefaced with Yeats' poem. It originated from an aborted opera project based on the Deirdre story. My feelings towards Yeats, the man and the poet, are ambiguous; I avoided him largely. So I was not aware of this connection until now.

Thank you for this lovely pensive blog, Mr Pentz!

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You and I are in agreement. The idea of "avant garde" art (including literature) amuses me: what conceit to imagine that one's version of art supersedes, or improves upon, all that has come before. As if human nature changes, much less "improves." This, as you know, is what is wonderful about poetry: the Chinese T'ang poets, the Japanese classical haiku poets, and the poets of the Nineties (to cite just three examples) are often saying the same thing: as you say, "differently," but "progression" does not enter into it.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for the information you have provided about Arnold Bax, Yeats, and "twilight." As usual, you are a wonderful source of information about the connections between 20th (and 21st) century music and poetry. I do have a recording of Bax's "Tone Poems," but I was not aware of the pieces you mention. I have now tracked them down on the Internet and listened to them: they are all lovely. I particularly like (perhaps no surprise here!) "Pensive Twilight." Thank you for providing this perfect connection to the themes of the post.

I share your feelings about Yeats: I am not fond of him as a person, and I think, as I suggested in the post, that his poetry (including his poetry of the Nineties) is often marred by self-dramatization and rhetoric. And I have no time at all for his political poetry. Still, I cannot get around the fact that he wrote dozens of beautiful poems. I suppose that my continuing attachment to his poetry is attributable to the circumstance that I first encountered it in my "impressionable youth" (as the saying goes), and I thus retain a romantic fondness for the poems.

As always, it is very nice to hear from you. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and your knowledge, and for your kind words about the post.

Acornmoon said...

I am enjoying feasting my eyes once again on the paintings of Samuel Palmer which you have chosen to accompany the poems. I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Gennady Spirin? There is a beautiful harvest scene in "The Children of Lir" which evokes that end of summer into autumn "quickening rise to brilliance".

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: I'm pleased you enjoyed Palmer's paintings. He is wonderful in any season or setting, but his twilight and harvest paintings (and engravings as well) are particularly evocative, I think.

Thank you for the reference to Gennady Spirin. I was not familiar with his work, but I have now viewed some of it on the Internet. Lovely! I'm not sure if it is the scene you are referring to, but I did find an illustration from "The Children of Lir" which shows four white swans flying over fields being harvested by farmers, with sheaves of grain, a thatched cottage, and a stone church, beside a deep blue sea. Perhaps this is the painting you had in mind? It is beautiful.

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

Bruce Floyd said...

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

The old piano plays an air,
Sedate and slow and gay;
She bends upon the yellow keys,
Her head inclines this way.

Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands
That wander as they list -- -
The twilight turns to darker blue
With lights of amethyst.
--James Joyce

Mention James Joyce and most people who are familiar with him will think of the great modernist novelist--a complex and often cryptic writer, the crafter of high and serious and literary fiction--fiction at its highest and most serious and most literary.

Unless one knew, one would not suppose the delicate little poem above, one filled with a soft melancholy, is by Joyce. The meter immediately catches one's ear, the alternating iambic lines of tetrameter and trimeter. The unrhymed first and third lines of each stanza prevent the poem from being singsong. By my count, a cursory one, fifty-five of the sixty-eight words in the poem are one syllable. The alliteration and assonance, though unobtrusive, endow the poem with sweet sounds, like Caliban's island.

In truth, Joyce shows his mastery of words and their sounds in this poems as much as he does in his novels. The poem is a masterpiece of tone. And yet the entire poem hangs upon the fact that what happens in the poem happens at twilight.

As you note, twilight has magic, a frail legerdemain, one soft and tender, that beguiles the human imagination, prophesizing to it in words that the tongue cannot translate into meaning. This unriddling must be done by the heart.

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

The old piano plays an air,
Sedate and slow and gay;
She bends upon the yellow keys,
Her head inclines this way.

Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands
That wander as they list -- -
The twilight turns to darker blue
With lights of amethyst.

Deb said...

I too can have trouble reading work by those I do not like personally for some reason. And yet, though I find much about D.H.Lawrence's politics and attitudes disagreeable, some of his poems move me in a way that no others have ever been able to. Some of them also make me cringe.

In the introduction to "Poems I Remember", Christmas Humphreys asks us to

"Love then the poem, and let the poet be. Does it matter that he had three wives at once, or was 'pink' in his politics? Is the poem lovelier for knowing that the writer was usually drunk, and died in penury at twenty-two? Or even that he was profoundly influenced by A and B and had some influence on C? Holding the answer to be No, I have given in this volume no biographies, nor even dates, and indeed was tempted to present the poems without their authors - leaving those trifling matters for an index at the end...."

Thank you for yet another beautiful blog post :-)

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for sharing the poem by Joyce, which is new to me. It is a lovely poem. And it certainly has an 1890s feel to it. From doing a bit of Internet research, I discovered that it appears in Chamber Music, which was published in 1907. The source I found states: "with a recommendation from Arthur Symons, it was published in London in May 1907 by Elkin Mathews." The Symons connection is a nice coincidence. I can see why Symons would have liked Joyce's poetry. I can hear both him and Ernest Dowson in this poem.

Thank you for the poem, and for your own thoughts on twilight, which fit perfectly here.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I have the same feelings about Lawrence. As a person, I find him off-putting, but, as you say, he wrote some wonderful poems. Your sharing of the passage by Christmas Humphreys is perfect in this context. (I wasn't aware of "Poems I Remember", but I have fond memories of Christmas Humphreys: his books helped introduce me to Buddhism many years ago. So it is a pleasant surprise to have you quote him.) His point is an excellent one, and I completely understand his temptation to print the poems without identifying the poets.

But it is sometimes difficult to get past a poet's personality, isn't it? I confess that my fondness for, say, Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy as people (although I am well aware of their faults) makes it easier for me to return more often to their poetry. Whereas with, say, Yeats and Lawrence, there is something of a hesitation. But their personalities don't keep me away entirely. It is an interesting conundrum. We tend to want to know something about a poet's background, but we might not like what we find.

Thank you very much for visiting again and for sharing your thoughts. And thank you as well for your kind words about the post.