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)


RT said...

Thanks for your generous and beautiful posting, one that proves the truth of Keats: Beauty is truth.

May I in return offer something resembling a haiku:

Wordsworth's words warm me
on this cold Sunday morning
without daffodils.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: You are welcome. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

And thank you as well for the haiku. No daffodils here yet either. But, instead: "thoughts that are fed by the sun."

As always, I appreciate hearing from you. Thanks for stopping by.

JohnE said...

Hi Stephen

I enjoyed your “Peace” blog, as I have enjoyed so many of your postings since I first came across your work a year or so ago. Many a time you voice my thoughts, but better by far than I could express them.

You appear to be able to call upon an inexhaustible supply of 19th and 20th century paintings to illustrate your blog. Is the source publicly accessible on the net?

Stephen Pentz said...

JohnE: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm happy that you found your way here.

The source of most of the images I use is a BBC site called "Your Paintings." The site attempts to gather images of all oil paintings held by museums and other institutions in the UK. According to the website, it is "a joint initiative between the BBC, the Public Catalogue Foundation, and participating collections and museums from across the UK." At the current time, there are approximately 212,000 images on the site.

Thank you very much for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life does greatly please.
Edmund Spenser, 1590

The above was Conrad's epitaph, Spenser's words graven into the novelist's stone. Conrad, when he drew breath, had these words posted above his desk. Though it flies I the instinct of a creature acutely aware of its ephemeral mortality, yet still a part of us longs for the dreamless and eternal sleep of death, as if burdens will be lifted. ( see Housman's poem " Afterwards").

The below lines from Shakespeare suggest the same thought. The grave as respite, as destination reached, halcyon port entered, the hot, futile struggle over, the peace and serenity above all others come at last, one at last one with the elements, completely merged, borne mindlessly around the sun forever.

From ‘Cymbeline’, Act IV. Scene 2

FEAR no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must, 5
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak: 10
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash; 15
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee! 20
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the Shakespeare and for the other references. (Coincidentally, I long ago visited Conrad's grave in the Canterbury cemetery. I had forgotten about the lines from Spenser on the gravestone.)

The Shakespeare and the Spenser bring to mind the large number of poems that Christina Rossetti wrote about death as sleep and/or rest: "Sleeping at Last," "Rest," "The Bourne," "Dream Land" ("She sleeps a charmed sleep . . . Rest, rest, a perfect rest") -- it was a subject she often returned to.

Thank you again.

Wurmbrand said...

The Spenser lines chill me. They are the seductive words of Despair in the First Book of the Faerie Queene -- words that almost lead Redcrosse to suicide.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you for pointing out the context of Spenser's lines. It's interesting how, over the years, the lines have been taken out of their original menacing context and transformed into words of solace and comfort. On the other hand, I shouldn't make any presumptions: perhaps some find them menacing in or out of context.

Thank you again.