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)


Fred said...


I find it interesting that three of the four poems refer to loneliness, and the fourth certainly seems to imply it.

Is Thomas hinting that perhaps God created us because It was lonely?

Frost's "Desert Places" gains new light, at least to me anyway, when read juxtaposed with "Stopping by Woods. . ." It's a classic example of Emerson's comment that our impressions of nature are created by our moods.

Sam Vega said...

Did Thomas hear that whisper? I believe he did, and much of his poetry was about a longing to hear it again:

Prayers like gravel

flung at the sky’s

window, hoping to attract

the loved one’s

attention. But without

visible plaits to let

down for the believer

to climb up,

to what purpose open

that casement?

I would have refrained long since

But that peering once

Through my locked fingers

I thought that I detected

the movement of a curtain.

Bovey Belle said...

The R S Thomas poem is one I know and enjoy. Sometimes when sleep eludes me I lie, watching a glimmer of moonlight through the curtain and think of lives being lived alongside mine - though it is the low chatter of our stream I here and not the Atlantic. . .

A wonderful choice, as always.

George said...

Barnes reminds me of the last full stanza of Trumbull Stickney's "Mnemosyne": "But that I knew such places as I my own/I'd ask how came such loneliness to cumber/The earth, and I to people it alone."

Contemplating one's insignificance as compared to the universe seems to me a modern habit, or even affectation. At the end of Book VIII of the Iliad it is a night as if (in Robert Fitzgerald's translation) "pure space had broken through"; and it is of the sort in which the shepherd sings in his heart. We have a juster notion of the size of the cosmos than the Greeks did, but do we prize ourselves less?

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Yes, "Desert Places" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" make a good pair, don't they? "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Like the "empty spaces between stars" (or within ourselves) -- "Desert Places." As you know, these themes recur often in his poetry. On a more aesthetic note, I like the idea of the woods filling up with snow in the dark that is present in both poems. Lovely.

As for Thomas: his relationship with, and conception of, God was complicated. Please see my response to Sam Vega's comments for further thoughts on that.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for that -- a lovely poem. But isn't there some equivocation there? Thus: "I thought that I detected . . ." And consider the title of the poem: "Folk Tale." (Rapunzel, yes; but what about God?) Hmm.

As you know, he wrote many wonderful poems on this theme. It is difficult (for me, at least) to reach any definitive conclusions. I've often thought that this (which I'm certain you are familiar with) may capture his feelings best:

Via Negativa

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. HIs are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
HIs side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too: but miss the reflection.

This was published in 1972, and he lived 28 more years, so it is unfair to argue that this is necessarily a "definitive" statement. He may well have heard the whisper later. And, in fact, he does speak of "echoes" and "footprints," doesn't he?

I also think of these lines, from "The Absence":

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

I also think of "The Empty Church": "They laid this stone trap/for him, enticing him with candles,/as though he would come like some huge moth/out of the darkness to beat there. . . . He will not come any more/to our lure."

And yet: can you spend your entire life as an Anglican priest and not have heard a whisper (or seen a curtain move)? I don't know.

Thank you for prompting me to think about this more deeply. It's been too long since I have spent extended time with his poetry. You have encouraged me to return.

As ever, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I'm pleased you liked the selection of poems. I'm delighted to hear that you are fond of "The Other." It is haunting and beautiful, and it is a favorite of mine as well.

How fortunate you are to be able to hear the sound of a stream in the middle of the night -- "when the night-processions flit," it may help lull you back to dreams.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. From reading Codlins and Cream, it looks as though the waters have receded in your part of the world, which is good to hear.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for pointing out the correspondences between "A Winter Night" and Stickney's "Mnemosyne," which is a wonderful poem -- I hadn't thought of that connection. The refrains in "Mnemosyne" seem apt as well: "It's empty down the country I remember. . . . It's lonely in the country I remember."

I may have to respectfully disagree with you with respect to your suggestion that "contemplating one's insignificance as compared to the universe seems to me a modern habit, or even affectation." In my humble opinion, post-Enlightenment humanity has had way too high an opinion of itself and of its significance and powers. This is reflected in the gods of Science, Progress, and utopian political and social projects. (Since you are a long-time visitor here -- for which I thank you! -- you know about those particular bees in my bonnet, so I won't bore you further.)

In contrast, it seems to me that older civilizations had a much better perspective on our place in the grander scheme of things. For instance, classical Chinese poetry, underlaid as it is with deep layers of Buddhism and Taoism, has a profound understanding of the relationship of humanity to time, change, and the universe. A line by Po Chu-i (describing himself) comes to mind: "A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn." (From "Climbing the Ling-ying Terrace and Looking North," translated by Arthur Waley. The poem has appeared in at least one of my posts.) I think that the classical Japanese haiku and waka poets share the same characteristics. Again, this is likely due to the influence of Buddhism and Taoism (as transformed by the unique features of Japanese culture).

In sum, I do NOT think that modern humans "prize ourselves less" (to use your phrase). In fact, I think just the opposite is true: we prize ourselves too much, and our opinion of ourselves is much too high. There is no shortage of hubris and grandiosity in the modern world. In my humble opinion, we need to cultivate humility. But that's just me.

Please note that I say all of this in good spirit, and not in the spirit of argumentation. Moreover, I may well have misinterpreted the thrust of your observations. If I have done so, I apologize.

It is very nice to hear from you again. As always, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting.

Rose said...

I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

What do you think these lines mean? To Frost and to yourself?


Bruce Floyd said...

The Thomas poem, which I had not read, stunned me with its stark beauty. It's quite powerful. It's easy to contemplate, though it's hard to communicate (only the best poets can do it), the effect of the indifferent stars on the human psyche. This observation, as you know, spawns much existential angst, many a melancholy poem.

In the poem below Auden gets around, or seems to, the indifference of the stars, of the stitched heavens. He seems to wish this world we inhabit, man and beast, were more indifferent, as unaware as the stars. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

The More Loving One by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rose: I hope I don't sound coy (or evasive), but I think the phrase "desert places" is one that we all have a pretty good sense of in terms of our own life. I would say the same thing of Thomas Hardy's "night-processions." I would not presume to speculate as to what Frost's "desert places" were, nor would I presume to speculate as to what Hardy's "night-processions" consisted of. But, as an imperfect and flawed human being who has made many mistakes and has many regrets, I know exactly what Frost and Hardy mean.

If you click on the link to "when the night-processions flit/through the mind" in the post, you'll find, in addition to Hardy's poem, these lines from Elizabeth Jennings: "imagine those nights when you lie awake/Afraid to turn over, afraid/Of night and dawn and sleep." (From her poem "The Rabbit's Advice.") You will also find a poem by Fleur Adcock ("Things") which contains the lines: "It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in/and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse." "Desert places." "Night-processions."

These are feelings that all of us know well, don't you think? Mind you, they are only one part of our life, and I'm not suggesting that we ought to constantly dwell in our "desert places." But we wouldn't be human if we didn't have them.

Thank you very much for your comment, although I fear that I haven't been very enlightening!

RT said...

Thank you again for your postings. Your posted poems, art, and commentary remind me of my time in Iceland; the arctic winter skies -- clear with a view of countless stars -- were, I often thought, a glimpse into the soul of God. Perhaps that is a blasphemy, but it was my reaction at the time. So, thanks for provoking the memory.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: I'm pleased you like "The Other." As I mentioned in my response to Bovey Belle's comment, it is a favorite of mine. I completely agree with you about its beauty and power. I think I am also fond of it because it does not have the bitterness and anger that are sometimes evident in Thomas's poetry.

Thank you very much for sharing "The More Loving One," which I am also fond of. It fits perfectly here. I've always thought that the poem has a strong Frostian feel to it, both in terms of sound and of sense. But I may be off base. In any event, it provides a nice complement to "Desert Places" in particular.

As always, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: You are very welcome. I can only imagine how beautiful the night sky must have been in Iceland. You are lucky to have experienced such a sight. "Blasphemy"? I think not. It sounds like you and R. S. Thomas have a similar outlook. You are in good company.

Welcome back from Costa Rica! It is always good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

George said...

Stephen, yes, and that is why I said "or affectation." John Lukacs somewhere makes much the point that you do, as does Egon Friedell in the first volume of his cultural history of modernity.

Fred said...


The following from FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat seems to fit in with earlier views of our importance in the universe or to the universe:


"And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, should lose, or know the type no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour'd
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour."

Edward FitzGerald
The Rubaiyat, Second Edition

Not only are there millions like us, but we are only bubbles--such is the significance of our presence in the universe.

Another favorite of mine is

"A Man Said to the Universe" By Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Rose said...

Thanks Stephen. I'm not very familiar with Robert Frost's work though I know a few of his most popular poems. The desert as metaphor for emptiness and despair always throws me as I always associate desert with fecundity and spiritual regeneration (prophets, the Desert Fathers, indigenous knowledge, etc).

I enjoy your blog posts and ruminations, your poetry selections and the art work too most of which is new to me.

Andrew Rickard said...

"homely, small-scale, and individual soul-loneliness"

This is very nicely put, Stephen. Hope this finds you well.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for your follow-up comment. Your point about your use of the phrase "or affectation" is well taken. I also acknowledge that my response to your comment is full of sweeping generalizations about the general tendency, as I see it, since the Enlightenment.

I am aware of Lukacs, but I have never read anything by him. I do know, from reading a review a few years ago of one of his books, that he is not very keen on contemporary life. Egon Friedell is a new name to me, which I feel remiss about, since I have had a long-time interest in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly through Wittgenstein and Robert Musil. I don't know how I missed him. I found some excerpts from A Cultural History of the Modern Age after reading your comment: it looks fascinating. Thank you for pointing him out to me.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for those two poems, both of which are apt. I really ought to get around to reading FitzGerald one of these days -- although I feel that I am reading the Rubaiyat bit-by-bit via your own periodic posts comparing FitzGerald's different versions of each of the poems. (Thank you for that!)

As you know, the image of Man/Woman as a "bubble" is fairly common is English poetry, particularly in the Elizabethan period. The following poem is not from that period, but it uses the image:

Man's a poor deluded bubble,
Wandering in a mist of lies,
Seeing false, or seeing double,
Who would trust to such weak eyes?
Yet, presuming on his senses,
On he goes, most wondrous wise:
Doubts of truth, believes pretences,
Lost in error lives and dies. (Robert Dodsley 1703-1764)

Thanks again for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rose: Thank you for your follow-up thoughts. I agree with you completely about the desert: the stereotypical view of it (vast, barren sands) does not tell the whole story. In my younger years (the 1980s), I spent a fair amount of time in the high desert of eastern Utah (Moab, Arches National Park, Canyonlands) and in parts of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, and your association of the desert with (to use your words) "fecundity and spiritual regeneration" resonates with me.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I greatly appreciate your visits.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: Thank you very much -- that's very nice of you to say. My description is how I've learned to approach these things. Although, at times, I get in the mood for, and can appreciate, the bleak cosmic ruminations of our beloved Schopenhauer. But too much of that will likely put me into a funk. (Which doesn't stop me from delighting in Arthur's thoughts. If nothing else, he always makes me laugh at the direness of his views. Of course, he may well be absolutely correct.)

It's very nice to hear from you again. I hope that all is well with you as well. Thank you for stopping by.

John Ashton said...

What a wonderfully rich and delightful post to contemplate Mr Pentz. There have been so many fascinating comments made by others, that deserve thought in themselves that I feel I have little to add, except to say that posted here are two of my favourite Thomas poems, and how marvellous to see William Barnes.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with R.S Thomas by the writer and critic Grevel Lindop, I thought you may be interested as it gives a different picture of him to the usual on. Here is the link, I hope it works.


I was also fortunate to find a copy of Ronald Blythe's book, At Helpston in a local public library. I know you mentioned it recently. In one of the essays there is a poem by R.S Thomas which I had never seen before entitled Luna, written about John Clare. I don't know if you are aware of it, but I include it here in case you haven't.

The moon never sets
in Northampton. Every time
I pass through, it stares
at me from a window
of the asylum and is always
at the full. Don't be misled
by those likenesses of it
when it was new and shone
down on the unenclosed meadows.
As it waxed it became
bald. It was a skull
where names chased one anther
without end, wife and sweetheart
hurrying by like shadows
over the corn. For ignorance
time stops by a flower.
Young, he was in his own
sky, rising at mornings
over unbrushed dew.

Apologies if you have seen it before. Thank you once again for First Known When Lost, the poems, and the comments, long may it continue.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pentz,

About our ephemeral lives, our transient bubbles of flesh, bursting almost as soon as formed, ourselves as effervescent as spindrift, who says it better than Prospero in "The Tempest":

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 1880
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve 1885
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog and about the commenters. With respect to the commenters, I am continually thankful and humbled to receive the always thoughtful and thought-provoking comments to my posts -- including, of course, yours!

In that regard, thank you indeed for "Luna" and for Grevel Lindop's article on his meeting with Thomas -- both are new to me and both are wonderful. The poem is a moving evocation of Clare, isn't it? Beautiful. And Lindop's account of his meeting with Thomas, together with his quotations from Thomas's conversation, are marvelous. I have printed it out to place into my file on Thomas. It certainly belies the misleading popular caricature of Thomas, doesn't it? To cite just one small instance: I love when Lindop offers a compliment on the "lemon-spiced sponge cake" that Thomas and his companion served him at tea, and Thomas "looked gratified" and responds: "I made it myself, in an off moment." Wonderful.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. And thank you again for the poem and Lindop's article.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing this passage, which fits well here. The reference to "the gorgeous palaces" brings to mind a poem that, coincidentally, I read just yesterday morning:

In Yüeh Viewing the Past

Kou-chien, king of Yüeh, came back from the broken land of Wu;
his brave men returned to their homes, all in robes of brocade.
Ladies in waiting like flowers filled his spring palace
where now only the partridges fly.

Li Po (translated by Burton Watson). Kou-chien had conquered the Kingdom of Wu.

Thank you again.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I am please you liked both the interview and the poem. I didn't offer any comment of my own on the poem because I wanted you to be able to read it afresh, without being swayed by any judgement of my own. I thought the poem deeply moving myself, particularly the line:

"It was a skull
where names chased on another
without end, wife and sweetheart
hurrying by like shadows
over the corn"

I thought the interview with Lindop fascinating especially some of Thomas's comments on other poets, I have to agree with him about Kathleen Raine. I loved that it showed another side to the somewhat caricatured portrait we too often get of Thomas.

Incidentally I am about to begin reading a novel, The Poet's Wife by Judith Allnatt. It is written from the point of view of Patty, Clare's wife after he has absconded from the asylum and returned home. It has been very well reviewed here, I shall be interested to read it.

Wurmbrand said...

William Vaughan's new book on a highly poetic painter must be recommended: Samuel Palmer: Shadows on the Wall. The 12th chapter is "Twilight and Moonshine," on Palmer's Shoreham nocturnes.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your follow-up comments. The lines that you quote from "Luna" are the ones that caught my attention as well: beautiful, and evoking Clare so wonderfully! I wasn't aware of Allnatt's book, so I appreciate your mentioning it. I've wondered what impact Clare's mental condition had upon his wife and family, so this imaginative reconstruction is an interesting idea.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you very much for pointing out Vaughan's book, which I had somehow missed. I am very fond of Palmer (his paintings have appeared here on a number of occasions), and I agree that his night paintings come to mind in the context of this post. From what I've seen on the Internet after reading your comment, the book appears to be the definitive work on Palmer, given Vaughan's long-time interest in Palmer. I ordered it this morning! Thank you again.

Bruce S. Post said...


I love the Hiroshige and Sohlberg art. I think you might like some of Nicholas Roerich's mountain scenes, if you have not already seen them.

Truly sublime.

Best wishes!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Post: I'm pleased you like the works by Hiroshige and Sohlberg. I wasn't aware of Nicholas Roerich, or his paintings, prior to your mentioning him. Thank you for the link to the Nicholas Roerich Museum. His paintings of the Himalayas are lovely. He certainly lived an interesting and energetic life, didn't he? I appreciate the introduction.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing the information on Roerich.