Saturday, October 31, 2015

"When All The World Is On The Wane"

The waning of autumn's magnificence brings sadness with it.  But it also provides an annual lesson in how to gracefully accept loss and change. The story is an ancient one:  we would not be sad if we had not loved.

                             Last Week in October

     The trees are undressing, and fling in many places --
     On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill --
     Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
     A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.

     A spider's web has caught one while downcoming,
     That stays there dangling when the rest pass on;
     Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming
     In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon,
Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon.

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

A side-note:  Hardy's likening of the "dangling" leaf to "a suspended criminal" is not a mere fancy on Hardy's part:  he witnessed two public hangings in his teenage years.  His second wife Florence's "biography" of him (which is, in fact, an autobiography written by Hardy) contains the following passage:

"One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o'clock at Dorchester.  He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town.  The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone façade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing, and the crowd below, being invisible at this distance of three miles.  At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

"The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy's hands.  He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man; and he crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious.  It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows."

Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), pages 32-33.

At another time, Hardy described the hanging of the woman:

"I went there really for a jaunt.  The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure (it was a woman) turning slowly round on the rope.  And then it began to rain, and then I saw -- they had put a cloth over the face -- how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it.  That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from the tree.  It was curious the two dropping together."

Elliott Felkin, "Days with Thomas Hardy," Encounter (April 1962) (italics in original), reprinted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 202-203.

Edward Waite, "The mellow year is hastening to its close" (1896)

Christina Rossetti's poetry is characterized by a continual movement back and forth between loss and faith.  What gives this movement its beauty and its emotional resonance is the overarching and underlying love that links the two together.  This love is both mortal and Immortal.  In her poetry, mortal love is ever threatened by loss.

                 An October Garden

In my Autumn garden I was fain
     To mourn among my scattered roses;
     Alas for that last rosebud which uncloses
To Autumn's languid sun and rain
When all the world is on the wane!
     Which has not felt the sweet constraint of June,
     Nor heard the nightingale in tune.

Broad-faced asters by my garden walk,
     You are but coarse compared with roses:
     More choice, more dear that rosebud which uncloses
Faint-scented, pinched, upon its stalk,
That least and last which cold winds balk;
     A rose it is tho' least and last of all,
     A rose to me tho' at the fall.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

I would categorize "An October Garden" as one of Rossetti's secular poems: it is an Elizabethan-sounding contemplation on the transient beauty of the rose, a symbol of love and life and loss.  In contrast, she also wrote a large number of devotional poems in which she articulates her belief that religious faith can provide solace for, and can ultimately redeem, the inevitable loss of mortal love and life.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

In her finest poems, Rossetti combines the secular and the religious into something that is uniquely evocative, enigmatic, and beautiful.  In her collection A Pageant and Other Poems, "An October Garden" is immediately followed by this:

                      "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
            Scentless, colourless, this!
     Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
                  Thus with our bliss,
          If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
            Sooner, later, at last,
     Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
                  An end locked fast,
          Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, Ibid.  The source of the title is the Book of Jeremiah 8:20 (King James Version):  "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."  Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (edited by R. W. Crump and Betty Flowers) (Penguin 2001), page 960.

As in "An October Garden," the fading of a final rose is the ostensible subject of the poem.  But "'Summer Is Ended'" operates in an entirely different realm.  The second stanza is breathtaking:  to my mind, it is one of those rare combinations of feeling, thought, and verbal music that remind us of why we read poetry.

Edward Waite, "The Autumn Road (Mitcham Woods, Surrey)"

For Thomas Hardy, religious consolation is not an option that is available to assuage our losses:  we live in a universe of "Crass Casualty" and "purblind Doomsters."  ("Hap," Wessex Poems and Other Verses.)

               The Later Autumn

Gone are the lovers, under the bush
          Stretched at their ease;
          Gone the bees,
Tangling themselves in your hair as they rush
          On the line of your track,
          Leg-laden, back
          With a dip to their hive
          In a prepossessed dive.

Toadsmeat is mangy, frosted, and sere;
          Apples in grass
          Crunch as we pass,
And rot ere the men who make cyder appear.
          Couch-fires abound
          On fallows around,
          And shades far extend
          Like lives soon to end.

Spinning leaves join the remains shrunk and brown
          Of last year's display
          That lie wasting away,
On whose corpses they earlier as scorners gazed down
          From their aery green height:
          Now in the same plight
          They huddle; while yon
          A robin looks on.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles.

I'm particularly fond of the robin at the end of the poem.  It brings to mind the wonderful birds that appear throughout Hardy's poetry, birds who observe (and often comment upon) the goings on of the World and the antics of its human inhabitants.  "Starlings on the Roof."  "The Darkling Thrush."  Another thrush in "The Reminder."  The thrushes, finches, and nightingales in "Proud Songsters."  The rook, the starling, and the pigeon in "Winter in Durnover Field."  To name but a few.

Hardy's birds signify both timelessness and transience.  As does the loss of autumn.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"


Bovey Belle said...

Ah, you draw me in Mr Pentz, like a moth to the flame. Mere mention of Thomas Hardy (or of course Edward Thomas) and I must draw near! What a beautiful poem, and one which I hope will come to mind every time I see a leaf trapped in a spider's web.

I know the Hangman's cottage, at the back of Dorchester, and can see it so clearly in my mind's eye. I doubt not that Hardy was truly affected by both these hangings, but perhaps the 2nd (James Seale's) more than the first, for the timing of it - no chance to mentally prepare himself - and the fact that he was no longer the callow youth, out for excitement, as when Elizabeth Martha Brown met her end (incidentally the last woman to be hung in front of an . . . audience . . . in Dorset), No surprise that he should choose that fate for poor Tess.

His "The Later Autumn" poem had me wondering what the heck a "couch fire" was, but of course if is the burning of the couch grass, whose roots spread everywhere.

I nearly picked up a copy of Rossetti's poems when I was in Hay-on-Wye recently, so I should have a hard-back copy rather than my paperback one, but then I was led astray by a new book by Robert McFarlane and so Rossetti stayed on the shelf! I am drawn to "Summer is Ended" though I feel sad that she was such a glass-half-empty person and instead of seeing the last glimpse of summer past in a fading bud, she saw the worm in it instead!

Thank you also for leading me to Durnover Field (a joy) - and to checking to see where it was - Fordington, which is the back of Dorchester, between the main part of the town and the river - where his friend Henry Moule lived.

The paintings, as always, are a joy.

Acornmoon said...

I love The darkling thrush best of all. Thomas Hardy paints with words, his poetry would be a gift to an illustrator.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post.

I had a similar thought about the leaf in the spider's web: we've all seen this, but it often takes a poet like Hardy to make us pay greater attention. At least that's how it often happens with me. As for "couch-fires": for me, it brings to mind those lines (which I'm sure you remember) from "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": "Only thin smoke without flame/From the heaps of couch-grass;/Yet this will go onward the same/Though Dynasties pass." As I've noted before, I envy you your familiarity with so many of Hardy's Dorset landmarks. I've read of the hangman's house, but I've never seen it in person. And I'd love to see Durnover Field.

Yes, I know what you mean by Rossetti's "glass-half-empty" personality. Not unlike Hardy and E. T., don't you think? All different, of course, but there is a shared underlying melancholy, which I am not unfamiliar with. But a great deal of wonderful poetry was born of it.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I've been enjoying your lovely autumn photos on Codlins and Cream. Please stop by again soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: Yes, I agree with you about the darkling thrush: ". . . Had chosen thus to fling his soul/Upon the growing gloom." Wonderful. Hardy's birds can teach us a great deal.

Regarding Hardy's poetry being "a gift to an illustrator": this reminds me (as you probably know) that Hardy included a few of his own drawings in the first edition of "Wessex Poems and Other Verses" to illustrate some of the poems.

I always appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

More Fire, More Ice said...

I am color subtle, muted, tertiary
Think not to know me with palette simple and primary
For I am twilights November
and the gloam in February

As an artist I can tell you that the most challenging times of the year for mixing colors are November, February, and March. These months are, to my mind and eye, actually the most 'colorful' and demand use of the entire palette and the most understanding of color theory.

Stephen Pentz said...

More Fire, More Ice: Thank you very much for the poem, and for your thoughts on colors at this time of year (and in early spring). As a non-artist, these things had not occurred to me. Your thoughts suggest that we need to look more closely at the world around us, which is always a good thing. I think that Waite's paintings demonstrate your point: there is a great deal of color in them, despite the generally somber overall tones: "twilights" and "the gloam," "subtle, muted, tertiary," as stated in the poem you shared.

Thank you for visiting again, and for the thought-provoking observations.

Bruce Floyd said...

I cannot think of another posting of yours as lovely as this one. To me, you hit the center of the paradox of human life. I can't hope to top it--I don't think anyone could--but I'd like to talk about a Dickinson poem. She, living in nineteenth century New England, was a keen poet of weather.

The below poem by Emily Dickinson seems apt since today is the first day of the return to standard time. We will be surprised at how quickly darkness comes today, all because of our prestidigitation with our way of measuring time. But "stooping night" will come early tonight, and what was late afternoon yesterday will be total darkness today. October has come and gone; November has arrived. In our marrow bone, where we live, we mark with significance October slipping into November.

The transition from October to November is larger in our imaginations that it is in fact. The taut ripeness of October, the sweet step toward fruition, and that swollen moment of fecundity at its peak, could not stay, and because we knew the beauty could not stay we were stricken with a sublime ambivalence.

And now that November is here, the bitter sweet wonder of October has, as it must, faded, and we imagine we hear lament in the wind.

But, if I read the poem correctly, Dickinson says that even though November has come and the night comes early, the "martial" winds take repose, the few leaves left still hang upon the trees. One assumes that while November reposes the while and hangs its "granite hat" on what "plush" is left, it will soon enough be about its rough business. It won't be plush much longer.

The Day grew small, surrounded tight
By early, stooping night--
The afternoon in Evening deep
Its Yellow shortness dropt--
The winds went out their martial ways
The leaves obtained excuse--
November hung his Granite Hat
Upon a nail of plush--

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. Although, as always, the credit for any loveliness goes to the poets and the painters, in this case Hardy, Rossetti, and Waite. I'm just the messenger.

And thank you as well for your meditation on the movement from October to November. Although, as I have noted in the past, the turning of the seasons is a matter of emotion, not a matter of the calendar, I do agree with you that there is something unique about the transition from October to November, even though it may be, as you say, "larger in our imaginations than it is in fact."

Finally, thank you for the lovely poem by Dickinson. You are always able to find a perfect poem by her to suit the occasion, and you have done so again. I agree with you that "early, stooping light" is perfect. I also particularly like "The afternoon in Evening deep/Its Yellow shortness dropt." That "Yellow" is key.

Thank you again. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.