Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Winter Night

There is nothing like a vast winter night sky to remind you of your place in the universe.  Such a vista might seem companionable during the December holiday season, when the neighborhood houses are decorated with colorful lights, and bright, bedecked Christmas trees can be seen in nearly every living room window.  The immensity and the depth of silence of that canopy seem manageable under those circumstances.  But the night sky tells a different story at the deep end of January.

                 A Winter Night

It was a chilly winter's night;
     And frost was glitt'ring on the ground,
And evening stars were twinkling bright;
     And from the gloomy plain around
               Came no sound,
But where, within the wood-girt tower,
The churchbell slowly struck the hour;

As if that all of human birth
     Had risen to the final day,
And soaring from the worn-out earth
     Were called in hurry and dismay,
               Far away;
And I alone of all mankind
Were left in loneliness behind.

William Barnes, Poems, Partly of Rural Life, in National English (1846).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Snow Falling on a Town"

However, we ought not to get too carried away with these dark-of-night contemplations.  An apostrophe on the "metaphysical" or "existential" loneliness of humanity in a mute and empty cosmos would be barren and abstract.  Rather, a clear winter night -- starry, vast, and eternally cold -- is simply a salutary reminder of how puny each of us is.  That's it.  Well, yes, loneliness does enter into it.  But it is the homely, small-scale, and individual soul-loneliness that we all experience on a daily basis.  "When the night-processions flit/Through the mind."  That sort of thing.  With a sharper, chillier edge.

                       The Hounds

Far off a lonely hound
Telling his loneliness all round
To the dark woods, dark hills, and darker sea;

And, answering, the sound
Of that yet lonelier sea-hound
Telling his loneliness to the solitary stars.

Hearing, the kennelled hound
Some neighbourhood and comfort found,
And slept beneath the comfortless high stars.

But that wild sea-hound
Unkennelled, called all night all round --
The unneighboured and uncomforted cold sea.

John Freeman, Stone Trees and Other Poems (Selwyn and Blount 1916).

I can sometimes hear sea lions barking in the night down along the shores of Puget Sound.  Are they "telling [their] loneliness all round" or "to the solitary stars"?  I find their voices to be comforting.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1918-1924)

When it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe, R. S. Thomas is the poet to go to.  Thomas's life-long waiting and waiting for a single whisper from something out there -- God, of course -- is perhaps the key theme of his poetry.  An odd thing to say of someone who was an Anglican priest, isn't it?  Did he ever hear the whisper?  I don't know.  But his waiting and listening led to the creation of a great many beautiful poems.

                     The Other

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away.  It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless.  And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

R. S. Thomas, Destinations (Celandine Press 1985).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"

Now, having just said that R. S. Thomas "is the poet to go to" when it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe, what am I to do with Robert Frost?  An amendment is in order:  R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost are the poets to go to when it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe.

I've never had the sense that Frost is waiting upon God, however.  His intimate knowledge of silence and emptiness -- the universe's and his own -- is wholly personal.   Or so it seems to me.  "Acquainted with the Night." This acquaintance is not necessarily comforting.  "Harrowing" is the word that comes to mind.

                         Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1911-1914)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Resting Place

Given the subject matter of this post, a disclaimer may be appropriate:  I am not, at the moment, brooding over mortality.  Actually, I am feeling quite cheerful.  "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."

Yet, come to think of it, the two are not mutually exclusive, are they?  It is possible to be cheerful and, at the same time, to brood over (or at least be mindful of) mortality.  In fact, that may be an ideal state of being.  But I am not that wise.  Hence, this post is simply a matter of one thing leading to another.

          To the Passenger

If I lie unburied Sir,
These my Reliques, pray inter.
'Tis religion's part to see
Stones or turfs to cover me.
One word more I had to say;
But it skills not; go your way;
He that wants a burial room
For a Stone, has Heaven his Tomb.

Robert Herrick, Poem 821, Hesperides (1648).

"Passenger" means "passer-by" in this context.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 724.  "It skills not" (line 6) means "it doesn't matter."  Ibid.  I presume that "wants" (line 7) means "lacks" in this context.  Herrick italicizes the final line, which, in accordance with his usual practice, signifies a quotation or a paraphrase from a classical source.  It has been suggested that the source is Lucan, Pharsalia, 7.819, as quoted (and translated) by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Second Partition, Section 3, Member 5, Subsection 1):  "the Canopy of heaven covers him that hath no tomb."  Ibid.

Claude Hayes, "Evensong" (1903)

The thought of having Heaven (or the heavens) as one's tomb puts me in mind of the many touching epigrams about the deaths of unfortunate mariners that are contained in The Greek Anthology.  Most often, the mariner's comrades, or a stranger who happens upon the washed-up corpse while walking along the shore, are able to bury the mariner and erect a monument to his memory.  However, sometimes the seafarer remains for ever lost at sea.

No dust, no paltry marble for his grave
Has Erasippus, but the wide sea wave.
For with his ship he sank.  His bones decay --
But where, the cormorant alone can say.

Glaucus (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley, Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849), page 70.

Here is a prose translation of the epigram:

"Not dust nor the light weight of a stone, but all this sea that thou beholdest is the tomb of Erasippus; for he perished with his ship, and in some unknown place his bones moulder, and the seagulls alone know them to tell."

Glaucus (translated by J. W. Mackail), in J. W. Mackail, Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1906), page 156.

Henry Anthony (1817-1886), "Evensong" (1873)

Wars on distant frontiers are a constant presence in classical Chinese poetry, and the prospect of a lonely death far from home and family is the theme of many poems.


Man -- pitiful insect,
out the gate with fears of death in his breast,
a corpse fallen in narrow valleys,
white bones that no one gathers up.

Anonymous (circa 6th to 7th century) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (Columbia University Press 1971), page 63.  The meaning of the phrase "Ch'i-yü-ko" is "uncertain."  Ibid, page 62.  The poem "was written to be sung."  Ibid.

Classical Greek and Chinese poetry share a surface matter-of-factness and simplicity that is underlaid by, and intertwined with, great emotion.  There is a dignity, seemliness, and reticence to this combination that makes the poetry extremely moving.  This may explain why the long-dead Greek and Chinese poets seem to be speaking directly to us, and for us.  We moderns are not so articulate, nor are we so wise.  We have forgotten a great deal.

James Webb, "A Bit of Sussex" (1877)

As I have remarked in the past, one of the wonderful things about reading poetry is how one poem can become a stepping stone to another.  The final line of the following poem has stayed with me for years.  I thought of it after I read Herrick's lines "He that wants a burial room/For a stone, has Heaven his Tomb."

                    A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, in Leonard Clark (editor), The Collected Poems of Andrew Young (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

"Buried within the blue vault of the air."  Well, what can you say about that? Nothing need be said, but I will say something anyway:  this is why we read poetry.

James Northbourne, "Evening" (1913)

In this context, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite poems.  It has appeared here on more than one occasion, but its final two lines are particularly apt.

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
     In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
     Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
     Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
     And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).

When all is said and done, being untombed is not necessarily a fate to be dreaded.  The thought of being "buried within the blue vault of the air" does not trouble me.  If only cormorants or seagulls know where my bones lie, I have no objection.  A resting place "where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush" sounds peaceful and lovely.  Like most everything, it is all a matter of perspective.  There are other considerations.

                              On Himself

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

Robert Herrick, Poem 554, Hesperides (1648).  "Scape" appears in the original.  The final line may be an echo of Horace (Odes, Book III, Ode 30): "I shall not all die, and a large part of me will escape the Goddess of Death."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 675.

Henry Anthony, "A Country Churchyard"

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Autumn Interlude

Please bear with me, dear readers.  I've been dwelling in China for the past week.  In autumn.  About 1,200 or so years ago.

                              Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed.  Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way.  My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002), page 42.

Meng Hao-jan spent most of his life in and around Hsiang-yang (also known as "Xiangyang"), which is in the modern-day province of Hubei.  It is a region that was known for its mountains and rivers.  Meng Hao-jan's character and poems were an important influence on the four great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907):  Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i.  Li Po wrote the following poem about him:

     At Yellow Crane Tower Taking Leave of Meng Hao-jan
                          As He Sets Off for Kuang-Ling

My old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears in the blue-green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky.

Li Po (701-762) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 211.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

I suspect that many of us share the urge to now and then visit another place and another time in the company of our favorite poets.  Hence, for some accountable reason, I will periodically feel a sudden hankering to visit Brittany with Ernest Dowson, Cornwall with Arthur Symons, Dorset with Thomas Hardy, Japan with Bashō, Alexandria with C. P. Cavafy, et cetera. Escapism?  No doubt.

This past week, autumn in ancient China has been calling me.

            Alone Beside the Autumn River

All spring, my sorrows grew like lotus leaves.
Now they wither as my autumn sadness grows.

Grief is as long and wide as life.
Watch the autumn river.  Listen to it flow.

Li Shang-yin (813-858) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 202.

The first three lines of the poem may be too morose for some tastes.  But they are beautifully morose, don't you think?  In any event, the final line redeems all sorrow, sadness, and grief.  One of the wonderful features of classical Chinese poetry is that it continually reminds us to direct our attention to the lovely particulars that lie in front of us, at this moment. What is in front of us at this moment puts everything into perspective. Time-bound timelessness.

Duncan Grant, "Charleston Barn" (1942)

Yes, these poetic journeys to strange lands may indeed include an element of escapism, especially if they also involve time travel.  After all, who, on occasion, does not wish to abandon one's current place and time?  Yet it is usually the case that these excursions, if they are taken in the company of good poets, lead to the proverbial "shock of recognition":  Ah!  I know that World.  We must return to the here and now, but all of these places and times continue to dwell within us, reminding us of the continuity of life and of human experience.

                              The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.

W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)

Thus, autumn in China 1,200 years ago does not seem at all strange to me. Mind you, this has nothing whatsoever to do with any special powers on my part:  it is entirely attributable to the honesty, sensitivity, and artistry of the poets. Call it a cliché, but, when I read their poems, their world feels like my world.  Another cliché:  I have no doubt that they are telling the truth.  "True and not feigning."  As far as what it means to make one's way through life, nothing has changed over the past twelve centuries.

     Lu-lung Village, Autumn

Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.

Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.

A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.

You want to know my name?
A hill.  A tree.  An empty drifting boat.

Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, page 212.

Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)

Friday, January 8, 2016


This is not a political blog.  However, I have, on occasion, bemoaned the fact that our world has become overly politicized.  Any sort of holier-than-thou posturing or hectoring -- from any direction -- leaves me cold.  Life is too short.

All of this is by way of introduction to a poem by Edmund Blunden.  To wit: please note that I am definitely not offering the poem as a "political" statement on any "current events."  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog will likely be aware of my distrust of the modern gods of Progress and Science and political utopianism.  You are certainly welcome to read the poem in that context.  But, of course, it speaks perfectly well for itself, and certainly needs no gloss from me.

                         Minority Report

That you have given us others endless means
To modify the dreariness of living,
Machines which even change men to machines;
That you have been most honourable in giving;
That thanks to you we roar through space at speed
Past dreams of wisest science not long since,
And listen in to news we hardly need,
And rumours which might make Horatius wince,
Of modes of sudden death devised by you,
And promising protection against those --
All this and more I know, and what is due
Of praise would offer, couched more fitly in prose.
But such incompetence and such caprice
Clog human nature that, for all your kindness,
Some shun loud-speakers as uncertain peace,
And fear flood-lighting is a form of blindness;
The televisionary world to come,
The petrol-driven world already made,
Appear not to afford these types a crumb
Of comfort.  You will win; be not dismayed.
Let those pursue their fantasy, and press
For obsolete illusion, let them seek
Mere moonlight in the last green loneliness;
Your van will be arriving there next week.

Edmund Blunden, An Elegy and Other Poems (Cobden-Sanderson 1937).

We now have our "televisionary world," don't we?  Blunden was correct on all counts.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was thinking along similar lines at around the same time that Blunden wrote his poem:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.  The passage was likely written by Wittgenstein in the 1930s.

Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

I suspect that "Minority Report" comes to mind because I continue to be haunted by the lovely lines from George Mackay Brown that appeared in my Christmas Day post:

We are folded all
In a green fable.

George Mackay Brown, from "Christmas Poem," The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Edwin Muir, Brown's fellow Orkney Islander, also took a wider, and longer, view of things.

               One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world's great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time's handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

Edwin Muir, One Foot in Eden (Faber and Faber 1956).

Richard Eurich, " Snow Shower over Skyreholme" (1973)

I agree with everything that Blunden says about our "televisionary world." George Mackay Brown expressed similar feelings:  "The twentieth century has covered us with a gray wash.  Newspapers and cars and television have speeded up the process.  It could not be otherwise."  George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing (John Murray 1997), page 166.  Perhaps this is the world that Muir has in mind when he speaks of "tares" amidst the corn, "famished field and blackened tree," and "beclouded skies."

Still, we ought not to leave it at that.  As I have noted here on previous occasions, each succeeding generation is convinced that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  But is this so?  Brown and Muir are aware of -- and have not given up on -- the realm of existence that has nothing whatever to do with Progress, Science, political utopianism, and their attendant evils.  In this realm, "building an ever more complicated structure" is of no moment.  All such structures come to dust.

Muir reminds us:  "Strange blessings never in Paradise/Fall from these beclouded skies."  Right here, right now.  However bleak things may sometimes seem.

Richard Eurich, "The Rose" (1960)

Wittgenstein is exactly right about Progress:  "Typically it constructs."  In our time, Progress and Science and political utopianism are devoted to engineering.  Devoted to engineering what?  "Ideal" societies and "ideal" human beings, of course.  A presumptuous and laughable goal.  Doomed to failure.

Why doomed?  Because the world we live in is, and will always be, "the vale of Soul-making."  The human soul is not subject to engineering.  Animula vagula blandula.  "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite."  "Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing."  What do social engineers know about the human soul?  It is forever beyond their narrow and feeble grasp.

                    -- I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd
By heady elements, for no man knows:
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideon's fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out:  my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967). These lines are an untitled fragment, perhaps from a play that Hopkins intended to write.  Ibid, page 304.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)