Monday, February 29, 2016

Life Explained, Part Thirty-Three: Snail

The sight of an empty snail shell in the garden or on the sidewalk always saddens me.  What fate befell the vanished inhabitant of that husk? "Moving at a snail's pace" will no doubt expose a creature to any number of misadventures.  And so the glimmering trail ends.

I realize, dear readers, that those of you who are gardeners may see the snail as a nuisance -- a single-minded engine of destruction.  I am also aware that some among you may consider the poems that follow to be instances of the worst sort of sentimental anthropomorphization, egregious examples of the Pathetic Fallacy.

I cannot muster a reasoned response to these potential objections.  The best that I can come up with is this:  there is no accounting for taste (mine, of course).  I came across the first poem a few weeks ago, and it immediately caught my fancy.  The three poems that follow it are long-time companions of which I am quite fond.  It occurred to me that it would be nice to see all of them together in one place.  As the benevolent (I hope!) dictator of this space, I can only beg your indulgence.

                       Upon the Snail

She goes but softly, but she goeth sure;
     She stumbles not as stronger creatures do:
Her journey's shorter, so she may endure
     Better than they which do much further go.

She makes no noise, but stilly seizeth on
     The flower or herb appointed for her food,
The which she quietly doth feed upon,
     While others range, and gare, but find no good.

And though she doth but very softly go,
     However 'tis not fast, nor slow, but sure;
And certainly they that do travel so,
     The prize they do aim at they do procure.

John Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls, or, Country Rhymes for Children (1686).

"Gare" (line 8) is glossed by one editor as "stare about."  Other editors (primarily in the 19th century) substitute "glare" in its place, apparently presuming that there was a misprint in the original text of 1686.  The adjectival form of "gare" means "eager, covetous, desirous of wealth."  OED. Given that Bunyan's book of children's poems was intended to edify, I would like to suggest (with absolutely no authority) that it would be nice to think of "gare" as meaning "to look about covetously."  Which a wise snail would never do, of course.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952), "Hartland Point from Boscastle" (1941)

It is the combination of self-sufficiency and leisurely, contemplative deliberativeness that makes the snail so beguiling and so sympathetic a character, don't you think?

                        The Snail

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                             Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where'er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                             Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                             The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin'd)
If, finding it, he fails to find
                                             Its master.

Vincent Bourne (translated by William Cowper), in H. S. Milford (editor), The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper (Oxford University Press 1907).

A side-note:  Vincent Bourne (1695-1747) was an Englishman who wrote poetry in Latin.  Cowper was a pupil of Bourne's at Westminster School. Later in his life, Cowper translated a number of Bourne's poems, including "The Jackdaw" and "The Thracian," which have appeared here previously.

"Well satisfied to be his own/Whole treasure":  yes, that's it, exactly!

Charles Ginner, "The Aqueduct, Bath" (1928)

The subject of my previous post was the role of "wonder" in the poetry of Walter de la Mare.  Wonder certainly plays a role in de la Mare's contemplation upon the snail in the following poem.  Having said that, I recognize that every good poem, on any subject, to some degree has its source in a poet's wonder at "the beauty and strangeness of creation" (to borrow W. H. Auden's words).

                         The Snail

All day shut fast in whorled retreat
You slumber where -- no wild bird knows;
While on your rounded roof-tree beat
The petals of the rose.
The grasses sigh above your house;
Through drifts of darkest azure sweep
The sun-motes where the mosses drowse
That soothe your noonday sleep.

But when to ashes in the west
Those sun-fires die; and, silver, slim,
Eve, with the moon upon her breast,
Smiles on the uplands dim;
Then, all your wreathèd house astir,
Horns reared, grim mouth, deliberate pace,
You glide in silken silence where
The feast awaits your grace.

Strange partners, Snail!  Then I, abed,
Consign the thick-darked vault to you,
Nor heed what sweetness night may shed
Nor moonshine's slumbrous dew.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (Constable 1933).

The entire poem is lovely, but my favorite lines are these:  "While on your rounded roof-tree beat/The petals of the rose."  What a beautiful image and thought.  It is enough to make you envy a snail's life.

Charles Ginner, "Lancaster from Castle Hill Terrace" (1947)

"Strange partners, Snail!"  Yes, you and I and the snail and all else in the World are strange (and beautiful) partners during our short time together on earth.  "The divinest blessings are the commonest -- bestowed everywhere."  So says Walt Whitman.  (Richard Maurice Bucke (editor), Notes and Fragments: Left by Walt Whitman (1899), page 49.)

        Considering the Snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark.  He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts.  I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury?  All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Thom Gunn, My Sad Captains (Faber and Faber 1961).

"The slow passion/to that deliberate progress."  Can we speak of a snail's passion?  Yes, of course.  Why not?

Charles Ginner, "The Punt in the Mill Stream"

Sunday, February 21, 2016


I like to listen to the robins and the sparrows twittering and clucking in the backyard.  An ornithologist could no doubt explain to me what each sound means in bird-language.  But I am not interested in explanations.  The World is reticent, circumspect.  It is best to just listen.

                        The Tomtit

Twilight had fallen, austere and grey,
The ashes of a wasted day,
When, tapping at the window-pane,
My visitor had come again,
To peck late supper at his ease --
A morsel of suspended cheese.

What ancient code, what Morse knew he --
This eager little mystery --
That, as I watched, from lamp-lit room,
Called on some inmate of my heart to come
Out of its shadows -- filled me then
With love, delight, grief, pining, pain,
Scarce less than had he angel been?

Suppose, such countenance as that,
Inhuman, deathless, delicate,
Had gazed this winter moment in --
Eyes of an ardour and beauty no
Star, no Sirius could show!

Well, it were best for such as I
To shun direct divinity;
Yet not stay heedless when I heard
The tip-tap nothings of a tiny bird.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

Vincent Lines, "The Tithe Barn, Cherhill" (1943)

Birds and insects appear often in Walter de la Mare's poetry.  He sometimes uses them as metaphors for human quiddities, but not often.  Instead, as in "The Tomtit," he sees them as messengers who remind us of how little we know about the mysteries that accompany our existence.  What is the tomtit trying to tell us with its tip-tapping?  And what does the clucking and twittering of the robins and the sparrows in the backyard betoken?

                                             The Dove

How often, these hours, have I heard the monotonous crool of a dove --
Voice, low, insistent, obscure, since its nest it has hid in a grove --
Flowers of the linden wherethrough the hosts of the honeybees rove.

And I have been busily idle:  no problems; nothing to prove;
No urgent foreboding; but only life's shallow habitual groove:
Then why, if I pause to listen, should the languageless note of a dove
So dark with disquietude seem?  And what is it sorrowing of?

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Vincent Lines, "Church Row, Tonbridge" (1942)

In this context, an observation made by W. H. Auden, who greatly admired de la Mare's poetry, is illuminating:

"[I]mplicit in all his poetry are certain notions of what constitutes the Good Life.  Goodness, they seem to say, is rooted in wonder, awe, and reverence for the beauty and strangeness of creation.  Wonder itself is not goodness -- de la Mare is not an aesthete -- but it is the only, or the most favourable, soil in which goodness can grow.  Those who lose the capacity for wonder may become clever but not intelligent, they may lead moral lives themselves, but they will become insensitive and moralistic towards others."

W. H. Auden, "Introduction to A Choice of de la Mare's Verse," in W. H. Auden, Prose, Volume IV: 1956-1962 (edited by Edward Mendelson) (Princeton University Press 2010), page 403.

Taking into account Auden's penchant (both in his poetry and his prose) for making sweeping cultural-psychological pronouncements, I do think that his comment gets to the heart of the appeal of de la Mare's poetry. Commentators tend to focus upon the "supernatural,""childlike," or "dreamlike" quality of many of de la Mare's poems (which in turn often leads to a devaluation of his work), but Auden is correct to place "wonder" and "goodness" at the center of de la Mare's view of the world.

                    The Moth

Isled in the midnight air,
Musked with the dark's faint bloom,
Out into glooming and secret haunts
          The flame cries, "Come!"

Lovely in dye and fan,
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
          Uplifts her face:

Stares from her glamorous eyes;
Wafts her on plumes like mist;
In ecstasy swirls and sways
          To her strange tryst.

Walter de la Mare, The Veil and Other Poems (Constable 1921).

Vincent Lines, "Mending the Thatch: A Cottage at Little Avebury" (1942)

Some may find it odd to speak of poetry in terms of its "goodness."  Not I. One of de la Mare's poems comes to mind:


Beauty, and grace, and wit are rare;
     And even intelligence:
But lovelier than hawthorn seen in May,
Or mistletoe berries on Innocent's Day
The face that, open as heaven, doth wear --
With kindness for its sunshine there --
     Good nature and good sense.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

"Good nature and good sense" are hard to come by both in life and in art. De la Mare was too self-effacing to ascribe those qualities to himself, but he was aware of their scarcity.  None of us are in a position to claim to have them.  But, if any poet can be said to have both "good nature and good sense," it is Walter de la Mare.

However, he is no Pangloss or Pollyanna.  Having a sense of wonder and aspiring to goodness does not mean that one is not fully aware of the facts of life.  Hence, an abiding awareness of our transience is present in nearly every poem that de la Mare wrote.  There is no shortage of deaths, graveyards, epitaphs, abandoned churches, empty echoing houses, and ghosts in his poetry.

But his "wonder, awe, and reverence for the beauty and strangeness of creation" places the fact of our mortality squarely at the heart of that "beauty and strangeness."  This is, marvelously, attended by a sense of peaceful acceptance.  This is where "good nature and good sense" come in. We find no despair in his poetry.  Nor do we find bitter and self-regarding irony, that characteristic disease of the modern age.  His essential message (as set forth in what are probably his best-known lines) is:  "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour."


This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye --
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.

Walter de la Mare, Ibid.  The ellipses are in the original.

Vincent Lines, "Church Porch and Manor, Avebury" (1942)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Two Lines

As the years accumulate in one's life, the virtues of brevity become more and more apparent.  There is something to be said for getting to the point. When it comes to poetic brevity, nothing can compare with the haiku:  life and the universe encompassed within 17 syllables.  As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog are aware, I am very fond of haiku, and a large number of them have appeared here in the past.

In my humble opinion, the deceptive simplicity of the haiku cannot be replicated in any English verse form.  Of course, this has something to do with the differences between the Japanese and English languages:  based upon my limited experience with Japanese, I would venture to say that Japanese accomplishes more in fewer words.  But there are also cultural factors at work:  poets writing in English (wherever they come from) tend to go on and on; in Japan, reticence and concision are highly-valued poetic and aesthetic attributes.

In English verse, the shortest free-standing poems are either quatrains or couplets, and such poems are relatively uncommon.  Instead, the classic English verse form (at least until the 20th century) is arguably the 14-line sonnet.  A traditional Japanese haiku poet would be bemused and/or appalled at the thought of any poet needing 14 lines (and 140 syllables!) to say what he or she wishes to say.

However, having now pontificated, over-simplified, and grossly over-generalized, I must confess that this post is prompted by two beautiful lines of English verse that I encountered earlier this week:

Language has not the power to speak what love indites:
The Soul lies buried in the ink that writes.

John Clare, in Eric Robinson and David Powell (editors), The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864, Volume II (Oxford University Press 1984).

The two lines are likely a fragment:  they appear in the manuscripts written by Clare in the latter years of his life, while he was confined to an asylum. They were not given a title by Clare, nor were they ever published in his lifetime.  However, they are set apart as a separate unit in one of Clare's notebooks:  they are not an extract from a larger poem.  Accordingly, subsequent editors of the manuscripts have published the lines as a free-standing poem.

I will not attempt to "explicate" the lines (I am not qualified to do so in any case), for I do not wish to destroy them.  But, to me, the lines demonstrate that a two-line poem in English can be every bit as evocative and ever-expanding as a haiku -- albeit in a different fashion.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "February Afternoon"

Two-line poems in English (i.e., couplet poems) tend to be epigrammatic or aphoristic.  In contrast, the distinctive feature of the haiku is its concrete (usually natural) imagery (although such concreteness does not limit its capacity for deep implication, without the need for "symbolism" or "metaphor").  In making this observation, I am not advocating on behalf of one form over the other:  they each have their own beauties and charms.

                    Few Fortunate

Many we are, and yet but few possess
Those fields of everlasting happiness.

Robert Herrick, Poem 470, Hesperides (1648).


In Man, ambition is the common'st thing;
Each one, by nature, loves to be a king.

Robert Herrick, Poem 58, Ibid.

In my view, Herrick is the master of the two-line poem in English:  no poet has used it more frequently (with the possible exception of Walter Savage Landor), and in such a lovely and telling fashion.

                  The Covetous Still Captives

Let's live with that small pittance that we have;
Who covets more, is evermore a slave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 607, Ibid.

       After Autumn, Winter

Die ere long I'm sure, I shall;
After leaves, the tree must fall.

Robert Herrick, Poem 1058, Ibid.

John Aldridge, "The River Pant near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)

To once again generalize, in the 20th century the two-line poem began to move away from the neatly tied-up epigrammatic or aphoristic statement (usually in the form of a heroic couplet) into something more emotionally open, and more amenable to the sort of natural images that one finds in haiku.  I suspect that this is due both to the general relaxation of poetic forms that has occurred in modern times (a mixed blessing at best, but I will not go into that) and to the influence of the long-delayed introduction of traditional Japanese and Chinese poetry into the English-speaking world at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the last century.

(A side-note:  the most common Chinese short-form poem is the chüeh-chü, which consists of a single quatrain rhymed in the second and fourth lines (with an optional rhyme in the first line) and which includes the same number of Chinese characters in each line (5 or 7).  The chüeh-chü, like the haiku, is almost always based upon concrete natural images, and, like the haiku, it is capable of deep implications that belie its apparent surface simplicity.)

Here is one of my favorite modern two-line poems.

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).  The poem is untitled.

Michael Longley is, I believe, the master of the short poem in our time.  Of course, he has written many fine long poems, but four-line poems occur often in his work, together with a fair number of five- and three-line poems. Given his genius for presenting striking, moving imagery in a concise fashion, it is not surprising that he has written a number of wonderful two-line poems as well.

                                     Night Time

Without moonlight or starlight we forgot about love
As we joined the blind ewe and the unsteady horses.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).

Love poems, elegies:  I am losing my place.
Elegies come between me and your face.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).  The poem is untitled.

John Aldridge, "Bridge, February 1963" (1963)

I will close with something enigmatic which demonstrates the evocative possibilities of modern two-line poems.  The following untitled poem was written in French by Philippe Jaccottet.  However, by translating the poem into an English heroic couplet (using half rhyme, at least to my ear), Derek Mahon permits us to consider it as an English two-line poem.

(Nothing at all, a footfall on the road,
yet more mysterious than guide or god.)

Philippe Jaccottet, in Derek Mahon (translator), Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).  The parentheses appear in the original.

Here is the French text:

(Chose brève, le temps de quelques pas dehors,
mais plus étrange encor que les mages et les dieux.)


I have no idea what the poem means.  But I think it is lovely, and I return to it often.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Saturday, February 6, 2016


In 1802, Dorothy and William Wordsworth were living at Grasmere in the Lake District.  Dorothy's journal entry for April 29 of that year contains this passage:

"We then went to John's Grove, sate a while at first.  Afterwards William lay, and I lay in the trench under the fence -- he with his eyes shut and listening to the waterfalls and the birds.  There was no one waterfall above another -- it was a sound of waters in the air -- the voice of the air.  William heard me breathing and rustling now and then but we both lay still, and unseen by one another -- he thought that it would be as sweet thus to lie so in the grave, to hear the peaceful sounds of the earth and just to know that one's dear friends were near."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (edited by Pamela Woof) (Oxford University Press 2002), page 92 (italics in original).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

The poetic conceit that death is akin to a peaceful sleep is an ancient one, as is its converse:  that sleep is a peaceful rehearsal for death.  I suspect that some moderns among us feel that these conceits are clichés that ought to be dispensed with.  Not I.  Clichés nearly always have an element of human truth in them.  They ought to be cultivated and preserved.

These chairs they have no words to utter,
No fire is in the grate to stir or flutter,
The ceiling and floor are mute as a stone,
My chamber is hush'd and still,
     And I am alone,
     Happy and alone.

Oh who would be afraid of life,
The passion the sorrow and the strife,
     When he may be
     Shelter'd so easily?
May lie in peace on his bed
Happy as they who are dead.

          Half an hour afterwards
I have thoughts that are fed by the sun.
     The things which I see
     Are welcome to me,
     Welcome every one:
I do not wish to lie
     Dead, dead,
Dead without any company;
     Here alone on my bed,
With thoughts that are fed by the sun,
And hopes that are welcome every one,
     Happy am I.

O Life, there is about thee
A deep delicious peace,
I would not be without thee,
     Stay, oh stay!
Yet be thou ever as now,
Sweetness and breath with the quiet of death,
Be but thou ever as now,
     Peace, peace, peace.

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Four (Oxford University Press 1947).

The poem is untitled.  It was not published during Wordsworth's lifetime. It was apparently composed in April of 1802, prior to the incident described by Dorothy in her April 29 journal entry.  This time frame is suggested by the following passage in her entry for April 22, which describes a walk taken that day by her, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

"A fine mild morning -- we walked into Easedale.  The sun shone. . . . The waters were high for there had been a great quantity of rain in the night. . . I then went to the single holly behind that single rock in the field and sate upon the grass till they came from the waterfall.  I saw them there and heard William flinging stones into the river whose roaring was loud even where I was.  When they returned William was repeating the poem 'I have thoughts that are fed by the sun.'  It had been called to his mind by the dying away of the stunning of the waterfall when he came behind a stone."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, page 89.

"I have thoughts that are fed by the sun" is a wonderful line.  It is worth remembering that Wordsworth had written the first four stanzas of what later came to be known as "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," as well as "My heart leaps up when I behold," just a few weeks earlier, in the final days of March.  It was clearly a charmed time.  "I have thoughts that are fed by the sun" seems to perfectly describe what Wordsworth was experiencing during this period.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"

As one who is fond of napping, reverie, daydreaming, and the border between waking and sleeping, Wordsworth's meditation on peace and quiet makes perfect sense to me.  Of course, I fully realize that there are practical considerations:  we do need to get out of bed at some point.

In doing so, perhaps we should seek an equilibrium between "thoughts that are fed by the sun" and "sweetness and breath with the quiet of death." You'll not find me zip-lining through the canopy of a rain forest or across a deep desert gorge any time soon.  But there are ways of going about this that encourage reverie, and that may enable us to attain "peace, peace, peace," even if only momentarily.


I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me.  But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
beside it.
                  There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide.  Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water's
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Park and Ruined Abbey" (1961)

If we attend to him, Ivor Gurney continually reminds us that we have it in us to find havens of peace under any circumstances.  Given the difficulties and sorrows of his troubled life, Gurney's ability to fashion these havens serves as a humbling example to the rest of us.  Somehow, he seems to have been able to recover -- if only for a short while -- "thoughts that are fed by the sun" and, with them, some small measure of peace.

The poems that preserve these moments are extremely touching, for we come to them with a sense of (acknowledging that we can never truly know) what he went through to reach these brief respites of serenity. The feeling of hard-won tranquility in these poems is palpable, and moving.  Reading them, I can only hope that, at times, he found his long-sought peace.

                         The Shelter from the Storm

And meantime fearing snow the flocks are brought in,
They are in the barn where stone tiles and wood shelter
From the harm shield; where the rosy-faced farmer's daughter
Goes to visit them.

She pats and fondles all her most favourite first.
Then after that the shivering and unhappy ones --
Spreads hay, looks up at the noble and gray roof vast
And says "This will stop storms."

Her mind is with her books in the low-ceilinged kitchen
Where the twigs blaze. -- and she sees not sheep alone
of the Cotswold, but in the Italian shelters songs repeating
Herdsmen kind, from the blast gone.

Ivor Gurney, in George Walter (editor), Selected Poems (J. M. Dent 1996). The text is as it appears in the original manuscript.  The poem was probably written by Gurney in September of 1926, or thereabouts, although this is not certain.  Ibid, page 105.  It was not published in his lifetime.

The following untitled poem is a lovely companion piece to "The Shelter from the Storm."

Soft rain beats upon my windows
Hardly hammering.
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war.

That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And the roar of the elms. . . .
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry's truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.  The poem was likely written by Gurney in 1926 or 1927. Ibid, page 105.  It was not published in his lifetime.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (1944)