Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Souls And Stars

It is always a pleasure to encounter a poet who harbors no doubts about the existence of the human soul, and who writes about it without skepticism and without irony.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

                                       A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest           best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).

The progression of the final line is lovely, isn't it?  "Night, sleep, death and the stars."  In thinking about the aptness of that progression, it is well to remember that, in Whitman's view, we have nothing to fear from death.  To wit:

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

Walt Whitman, from Section 7 of "Song of Myself," Ibid.  "I hasten to inform him or her" is wonderful, as is the certainty of "and I know it."

Or, consider this:

            Gliding o'er All

Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.

Walt Whitman, Ibid.

William Shackleton, "The Mackerel Nets" (1913)

Whitman turns up in unexpected places on the other side of the Atlantic. Here, for instance, is Gerard Manley Hopkins writing to Robert Bridges in 1882:

"I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living.  As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.  And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not."

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges (October 18-19, 1882), in R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (editors), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume II: Correspondence 1882-1889 (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 542-543.

As a product of Victorian England who had converted to Catholicism and then become a Jesuit, Hopkins was pretty much obliged to refer to Whitman as "a very great scoundrel."  But I don't think his heart was in it.

                         The Starlight Night

Look at the stars!  look, look up at the skies!
     O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
     The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves!  the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
     Wind-beat whitebeam!  airy abeles set on a flare!
     Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! --
Ah well!  it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then!  bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look:  a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
     Look!  March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
     Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

"The Starlight Night" was written in 1877.  I do not know whether Hopkins was aware of Whitman's poetry at that time.  (His first reference to Whitman in his correspondence appears in a letter to Robert Bridges dated January 30, 1879.)  However, the octave of the sonnet (rampant exclamation marks and all) sounds like something that Whitman could have written, had he ever taken it upon himself to write a sonnet.  As for the sestet:  well, Walt Whitman was never a Jesuit, but I believe he would understand, and respect, Hopkins's devotion and passion.

Phyllis James (1911-1973), "New Walk at Night, Leicester"

I am not suggesting that Hopkins's poetic technique or themes were directly influenced by Whitman.  (For one, Hopkins was preoccupied with technical matters of prosody that would have been of no interest to Whitman.)   Rather, I think that Hopkins and Whitman were both mystics at heart, and shared an emotional bond that was based upon their deep-felt sense of the capaciousness and timelessness of the human soul as it makes its way through a wondrous universe.

This in turn brings us to Ivor Gurney, a mystic as well, who was influenced by both of them, but particularly by Whitman.

                           To Long Island First

To Long Island first with my tortured verse,
Remember how on a Gloucester book-stall one morning
I saw, brown 'Leaves of Grass' after long hesitation
(For fourpence to me was bankruptcy then or worse).
I bought, what since in book or mind about the dawning
On Roman Cotswold, Roman Artois war stations;
Severn and Buckingham, London after night wanderings,
Has served me, friend or Master on many occasions,
Of weariness, or gloriousness or delight.
At first to puzzle, then grow past all traditions
To be Master unquestioned -- a book that brings the clear
Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here.
If I have not known Long Island none has --
Brooklyn is my own City, Manhattan the right of me,
Camden and Idaho -- and all New England's
Two-fold love of honour, honour and comely grace.
If blood to blood can speak or the spirit has inspiring,
Let me claim place there also -- Briton I am also Hers,
And Roman, have more than Virgil for meditations.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

A key phrase in Gurney's poem articulates how I see Whitman's influence at work in both Gurney and Hopkins:  "a book that brings the clear/Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here."  It was "the clear spirit" of Whitman that moved both Hopkins and Gurney.

This spirit is manifested in the cascading rushes of images and in the catalogues and lists that are characteristic of all three poets.  Hopkins's "The Starlight Night" is but one example.  Another instance is this poem from Gurney (which has appeared here on more than one occasion, but which is always worth revisiting):

                            The Escape

I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Trefoil . . . . . hedge sparrow . . . . . the stars on the edge of night.

Ibid.  All of the ellipses appear in the original manuscript.

In fact, "The Escape" serves well as a description of the essential forces that are at work throughout the poetry of Whitman, Hopkins, and Gurney:  "the increasing of life," "the seeing of small trifles/Real, beautiful," "freeing spirit that stifles/Under ingratitude's weight," and "the moving or breaking to sight/Of a thing hidden under by custom."  Most importantly, all of these activities end in "delight."  If not, why write poetry?

Merlyn Evans, "Window by Night" (1955)

But the last word should go to Walt Whitman, with a return to souls and stars.

                    When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure               them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause           in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps (1865).

Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)


Bruce Floyd said...

In the below poem Emily Dickinson writes simply and directly, stating unambiguously of her belief in a purpose and meaning in life. One can infer that she is talking not only about the world but about the human soul. I think, to be perhaps simple minded, she believes that the soul and its attendant self-consciousness were not given to us to be snuffed out. This poem implies that the soul endures. Or at least I take it this way. It says a great deal when she declares that God does not vacillate but, one gathers, rather, works deliberately, adhering to some divine plan.

Though the great waters sleep,
That they are still the deep
We cannot doubt.

No vacillating God
Ignited this abode
To put it out.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz ,I like finding Whitman, Hopkins and Gurney here together. I have to confess that I have come to Whitman rather late in life. I tried to read him when I was much younger, but found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the welter of words and the length of some of his poems. In recent years I have returned to him a little, but feel a complete novice regarding his poetry, though I am familiar with "When I heard the learn'd astronomer",which I've always liked, as is also the case with Gurney's The Escape which I turn to whenever I open my volume of his Collected Poems. A poem one can never tire of.

I agree with you that each of the three were probably mystics in their own way. One of the delights of your posts is in being reminded of poets I haven't read for a while. I was reading some Gurney a few days ago, but I haven't looked at Whitman for a while. Thank you for another wonderful and fascinating post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for the poem by Dickinson, which is wonderful. I found an image of her manuscript page for the poem on the Amherst College Digital Collections website. A lovely thing to see. "Abode" is a key word here, isn't it?

It is nice to read Dickinson and Whitman side-by-side.

As ever, thank you for sharing your amazing knowledge of Dickinson's work. I greatly appreciate your stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: My first reactions to Whitman's poetry were the same as yours. My solution has been to start with short poems, and with sections of the longer poems. Otherwise, to use your word, I become "overwhelmed." I will never be able to work my way through all that he wrote, and much of it still leaves me baffled and/or exhausted. But I have begun, I hope, to appreciate him more than I once did. In addition, discovering the influence that he had on Gurney and Hopkins has also made me look at him from a different angle. I am prompted to think: "What is it they saw in him?" As an American, it is difficult to evaluate Whitman from a distance (at least it is for me).

The word "mystic" in connection with the three of them occurred to me as I was thinking through the post. I am probably not using the term correctly -- i.e., in its technical "religious" sense. It is the energy and the ecstatic nature of their poetry, as well as their universe-wide and timeless apostrophes, that I have in mind. I am reminded of Bertrand Russell describing Wittgenstein as a "mystic." Characters of this sort inhabit their own universes, I think. And I say that in a non-pejorative sense. We have something to learn from them.

I agree with you about "The Escape." It is my favorite poem by Gurney. It is in the nature of a fragment, but it is lovely, and, to me, embodies Gurney's special qualities as a person and a poet.

As always, it is very nice to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you are enjoying the English spring.

John Maruskin said...

Mr. Pence, I enjoy the poetry you post and I love the pictures that accompany them. Today's post about Whitman and the soul took me back to a great Whitman experience with an old woman I used to visit at our local hospital when I was a bookmobile driver. Aunt Jane Donner was a lively, cantankerous nonagenarian who could quote everything from scripture to raunchy blues lyrics. At a group discussion one day another resident said she was uneasy about dying, and Aunt Jane immediately piped up, "Why fear the merge, honey, why fear the merge?" One of the kinds of revelation poetry does best.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: What a wonderful anecdote! Thank you very much for sharing it. I completely agree with your thought that poetry excels at providing certain types of "revelation" -- perhaps the most important sort.

Being woefully ignorant of much of Whitman's poetry, the "fear the merge" phrase didn't ring a bell with me, so I did some Internet research and came up with this: "Who need be afraid of the merge?" Lovely. Interestingly, the line appeared in the 1855, 1856, and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass, but Whitman removed it in subsequent editions. I wonder why? In any event, thank you for bringing the line to my attention in such a memorable fashion.

And thank you as well for your kind words about the blog. I'm pleased you found your way here, and I hope you'll return.

Deb said...

I hadn't really given any thought or time to poetry since my school days, till stumbling across Song of Myself by Whitman a few years ago, and being knocked for six by his insight and sheer jubilation at being here, being human, the whole experience of it all. Now I'm totally hooked on poetry again. That's got to say something...

One of my favourite poems, Presaging by Rilke, also seems to me to have the same intense joy of life and feeling that Whitman can bring across.

I am like a flag unfurled in space,
I scent the oncoming winds and must bend with them,
While the things beneath are not yet stirring,
While doors close gently and there is silence in the chimneys
And the windows do not yet tremble and the dust is still heavy—
Then I feel the storm and am vibrant like the sea
And expand and withdraw into myself
And thrust myself forth and am alone in the great storm.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Your point about Whitman is an excellent one. Reading him recently, my reaction has been much the same as yours: his "intense joy of life and feeling" (to use your phrase) is indeed very inspiring and affecting. The "sheer jubilation at being here, being human, the whole experience of it all" articulates perfectly Whitman's key qualities. I think it is wonderful that happening upon Song of Myself helped to bring you back to poetry.

Thank you very much for the poem by Rilke, which is new to me. I agree that it has the feel of Whitman to it. I have only a limited knowledge of Rilke's poetry, but, from what I have read, I think there is an expansiveness and an intensity to it that is similar to what one finds in Whitman, even though they were two very different characters.

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