Sunday, May 29, 2016

Choristers And Companions

While out for an afternoon walk this past week, I realized that I often fail to listen to what is going on around me.  My path takes me through meadows and wooded areas in Discovery Park, which, although it is a city park, is akin to a nature reserve.  According to the Seattle Audubon Society, more than 250 species of birds have been seen in the Park, including thrushes, warblers, wrens, swallows, chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, tanagers, towhees, vireos, and waxwings.  And, of course, robins, sparrows, jays, and crows.

Not surprisingly, therefore, my walks take place amid a chorus of singing, twittering, chirping, chattering, whistling, and warbling.  But too often I am daydreaming, and the music passes me by.

"It was widely rumored that certain persons had heard celestial music coming down from heaven around two o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day.  And they say it has been heard every eighth night since.  Some told me in all seriousness that they actually heard the music at such and such a place on such and such a night.  Others dismissed it as simply a prank played by the wanton wind.  I, for one, was inclined to take the idea seriously, but could neither accept it as completely true or reject it as absolutely impossible.  For heaven and earth are filled with strange and mysterious powers. . . . In any event, I found myself intrigued, and invited a group of my friends to come to my humble cottage on the nineteenth day of March.  We all listened intently, from early evening on, but we heard nothing until the first sunbeams touched the far end of the eastern sky. Then all at once we heard a voice -- we heard music -- coming from the plum tree near my window.
                                             Only birds
                                        sing the music of heaven
                                             in this world."

Issa (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), in Nobuyuki Yuasa, A Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru (University of California 1972). Oraga Haru was written in 1819.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

In his poem "Bird-Language" (which has appeared here previously), W. H. Auden speculates that "fear . . . rage, bravado, and lust" may be heard in "the words/Uttered on all sides by birds," but he ultimately concludes that "All other notes that birds employ/Sound like synonyms for joy."  Yes, I concede that all is not sweetness and light in the world of bird communication.  Yet, compared with human communication, all bird conversations (and soliloquies) sound like celestial music to me.  (Save, perhaps, for the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays.)

Call me sentimental, but I am inclined to the view that those unseen choristers -- hidden off in the tall grasses of the meadows or up in the leafy boughs of trees -- are indeed motivated by joy.  Joy and beneficence.

     To the Nightingale, and Robin Red-Breast

When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
Thou pitiful, and pretty Philomel:
And when I'm laid out for a corse, then be
Thou sexton (red-breast) for to cover me.

Robert Herrick, Poem 279, Hesperides (1648).  In the third line, Herrick uses the word "corse" rather than "corpse."

Herrick was wont to revisit his favorite themes.  He was particularly fond of robins.

                 To Robin Red-breast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this,
     Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Poem 50, Ibid.

The image of birds providing kind offices to the dead was a common one in the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan periods.  In the following poem by John Webster, those offices are performed by the robin and the wren.  (In a moment, we shall hear of the wren from Issa.)

                              A Dirge

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

John Webster, from the play The White Devil (1612).

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

I am well aware that the notion of birds as heavenly choristers is looked upon askance by modern products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." These moderns are equally troubled by the notion of a human soul.  For them, human beings, and human "reason" and "rationality," are the measure of all things.  How odd and how sad it is to constrict humanity, the World, and existence in such a fashion.

I am not in a position to make pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of heaven or of the soul.  Who would presume to do so?  These things are not matters of theology.  Nor are they matters of science. Theology and science both posit a certainty that does not exist.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                              Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

Sooner or later, one comes to the realization that there are no certainties in life.  Except one.  Our death.  Anyone who tells you otherwise -- theologians, scientists, politicians, social or political "activists" of any stripe -- is dissembling.  They know nothing.

In fact, this uncertainty is a glorious thing.  It is why we turn to poets and artists, poems and paintings.

Will we spend eternity listening to birds carrying on conversations above our graves?  Nobody knows.

     Look!  this lonely grave,
With the wren
     That is always here.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.

Fairlie Harmar, "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Homage To Thomas Hardy

I grow fonder and fonder of Thomas Hardy -- both as a person and as a poet -- with each passing year.  Two or three (or more) times a year I find myself in a Hardy mood.  Given that he wrote more than 900 poems, I am happy to realize that I will never exhaust his riches.  Each time I return to his poetry, I enjoy old favorites, rediscover gems that I had forgotten, and come upon surprises that I had somehow overlooked.

For instance, this past week I discovered the following poem.  How had I missed it all these years?

   The Sun's Last Look on the Country Girl
                                (M. H.)

The sun threw down a radiant spot
        On the face in the winding-sheet --
The face it had lit when a babe's in its cot;
And the sun knew not, and the face knew not,
        That soon they would no more meet.

Now that the grave has shut its door,
        And lets not in one ray,
Do they wonder that they meet no more --
That face and its beaming visitor --
        That met so many a day?

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (Macmillan 1922).

"M. H." refers to Mary Hardy, Hardy's sister, who died in November of 1915.  The poem was written in December of that year.  Ten years later, Hardy made the following journal entry:  "December 23.  Mary's birthday. She came into the world . . . and went out . . . and the world is just [the] same . . . not a ripple on the surface left."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 464 (ellipses in original).

How like Hardy to notice such a detail and then turn it into something so affecting.  Who but Hardy would have thought to create the lovely relationship between the country girl and the sun?  Too sentimental?  Of course not.  Here is a test:  please read the poem again, and, as you do so, think of someone you have loved who has passed away.

"Such, then, is the tenderness of Thomas Hardy.  I do not know any other English poet who strikes that note of tenderness so firmly and so resonantly.  You must forgive me for using what is called 'emotive language' about his work:  but, when one is deeply touched by a poem, I can see no adequate reason for concealing the fact.
* * * * *
Great poems have been written by immature, flawed, or unbalanced men; but not, I suggest, great personal poetry; for this, ripeness, breadth of mind, charity, honesty are required:  that is why great personal poetry is so rare. It is an exacting medium -- one that will not permit us to feign notable images of virtue.  False humility, egotism, or emotional insincerity cannot be hidden in such poetry:  they disintegrate the poem.  Thomas Hardy's best poems do seem to me to offer us images of virtue; not because he moralises, but because they breathe out the truth and goodness that were in him, inclining our own hearts towards what is lovable in humanity."

C. Day Lewis, The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy: The Wharton Lecture on English Poetry (The British Academy 1951) (italics in original).

William Anstice Brown, "In Purley Meadow, Sherborne, Dorset" (1979)

Day Lewis's use of the word "feign" in the preceding passage reminds me of a wonderful observation by Edward Thomas on the nature of poetry (an observation that has appeared here on more than one occasion):  "if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

The phrase "true and not feigning" perfectly describes Thomas Hardy's poetry as a whole, both the well-known old chestnuts ("During Wind and Rain," "The Darkling Thrush," "The Convergence of the Twain," "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," "The Oxen," for instance) and the lesser-known, out-of-the-way poems that often go unnoticed.  I believe that, in order to appreciate the truth, beauty, compassion, and charm of Hardy's poetry, one needs to become acquainted with the smaller hidden treasures.

               Just the Same

I sat.  It all was past;
Hope never would hail again;
Fair days had ceased at a blast,
The world was a darkened den.

The beauty and dream were gone,
And the halo in which I had hied
So gaily gallantly on
Had suffered blot and died!

I went forth, heedless whither,
In a cloud too black for name:
-- People frisked hither and thither;
The world was just the same.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses.

"Because he was haunted by Time and transience, because he never saw the commonest thing without a vision of what it once had been, of what it one day would be, in return even the commonest things were lit for him with a gleam of tragic poetry.  He saw things as instinctively in three tenses as in three dimensions.  In this way he widened the domain of poetry till it became for him as wide as life itself, a life intensely sad and yet intensely real.  The comfort that religion failed to give, he found and thought that others might find, not necessarily in writing poetry about this world, but in seeing this world poetically, as anyone with an imagination can. . . . Hardy did not simply make poetry out of life; he made life into poetry.
* * * * *
He deliberately took for his subjects the commonest and most natural feelings; but by an unfamiliar side, and with that insight which only sensitiveness and sympathy can possess.  This sympathy is important; for, as I have said, if truthfulness is one main feature of Hardy's work, its compassion is another."

F. L. Lucas, Ten Victorian Poets (Cambridge University Press 1940).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset" (1931)

Ah, the things we see in this world!  Sights that cause us to catch our breath, and that return to haunt us at unexpected times.  Speaking for myself, I can testify to the urge to look away in order to avoid future hauntings.  Thomas Hardy never averted his eyes.

               At a Country Fair

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there
          The giant seemed unaware.

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing;
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
          Or will of any kind.

Wherever the dwarf decided to go
At his heels the other trotted meekly,
(Perhaps -- I know not -- reproaching weakly)
Like one Fate bade that it must be so,
          Whether he wished or no.

Various sights in various climes
I have seen, and more I may see yet,
But that sight never shall I forget,
And have thought it the sorriest of pantomimes,
          If once, a hundred times!

Thomas Hardy,  Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

What are we to make of this poem?  Is it merely another example of Hardy the purported pessimist?  No, this is simply Hardy doing what he always does:  reporting what he sees.  What is the poem "about"?  Long-time readers of this blog will know my response:  explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

The most you will get from me is this:  the poem is about seeing a sight that forever haunts you.  Does such an experience change the world?  No.  Why should it?  Does such an experience change your soul?  We each have to answer that question for ourselves.

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

The following passage by David Cecil articulates far better than I can what draws me to Hardy.  Cecil's remarks about Hardy are remarkably similar to those of C. Day Lewis and F. L. Lucas.  They all have their source, I think, in a great love for the man.

"His poems bear the recognisible stamp of his personality, simple, sublime, lovable.  Here we come to the central secret of the spell he casts.  It compels us because it brings us into immediate contact with a spirit that commands our hearts as well as our admiration.  It combines a special charm, a special nobility.  The charm unites unexpectedly the naïve and the sensitive.  Hardy addresses us directly, unreservedly, unselfconsciously; yet he is not unsubtle or imperceptive.  On the contrary he shows himself exquisitely appreciative of delicate shades of feeling and of fleeting nuances of beauty.  Similarly his nobility of nature fuses tenderness and integrity. His integrity is absolute.  He faces life at its darkest, he is vigilant never to soften or to sentimentalise; yet he never strikes a note of hardness or brutality.  His courage in facing hard facts is equalled by his capacity to pity and sympathise."

David Cecil, "The Hardy Mood," in F. B. Pinion (editor), Thomas Hardy and the Modern World (Thomas Hardy Society 1974).

Thomas Hardy is a human being (a lovable, sensitive, compassionate human being) speaking directly and without guile to other human beings. He is unfailingly honest.  This means that the truths he tells you will be both beautiful and harrowing by turns (or at the same time).  But he will never lie to you.  He knows that we are all in this together.  And he knows that our time is short.

   The Comet at Yalbury or Yell'ham

It bends far over Yell'ham Plain,
        And we, from Yell'ham Height,
Stand and regard its fiery train,
        So soon to swim from sight.

It will return long years hence, when
        As now its strange swift shine
Will fall on Yell'ham; but not then
        On face of mine or thine.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

"May.  In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."

Thomas Hardy, journal entry for May, 1876, in Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 112.

Alfred Egerton Cooper (1883-1974), "Dorset Landscape"

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I am easily pleased.  In that spirit, I come to you with my annual May report:  the ants have emerged from their winter hibernation and are going about their business again.  "What is of more interest to you, the American presidential election or the ants erecting mounds of particolored grains of sand in the seams of sidewalks on a sunny afternoon in May?"  My response to that question is obvious.


Ah, there is no abiding!
     Signs from heaven are sent,
Over the grass the wind went gliding,
     And the green grass grew silver as he went.

Ah, there is no remaining!
     Ever the tide of ocean ebbs and flows,
Over the blue sea goes the wind complaining,
     And the blue sea turns emerald as he goes.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

The ants, in their antic and endearing fashion, remind me that there is constancy within change.  But I harbor no illusions:  this constancy is a qualified constancy.  Each year I am greeting a new generation of ants, not old acquaintances.  As for me, I am simply on a different schedule.  We are all walking in a straight line towards eventual dust.  This is not cause for alarm or sadness or brooding.  It is just something that we need to get used to, and accept.

"Reflect frequently upon the instability of things, and how very fast the scenes of nature are shifted.  Matter is in a perpetual flux; change is always, and everywhere, at work, it strikes through causes, and effects, and leaves nothing fixed, and permanent.  And then how very near the two vast gulphs of time, the past, and the future, stand together!  Now upon the whole, is not that man a blockhead that thinks these momentary things big enough either to make him proud, or uneasy?

Remember what an atom your person stands for in respect of the universe, what a minute of unmeasurable time comes to your share, and what a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book V, Sections 23 and 24, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702).

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

"What a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"  Yes, most of our life is a matter of getting over ourselves, isn't it?  Of course, we never truly get over ourselves.  (Perhaps mystics and saints do.  But I'm not sure about that.)  The best we can hope for is to gain perspective, bit by bit:  to recognize the contingency and the fragility of every breath we take.

                            Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Gollancz 1930).

Bertram Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)

I am very lucky.  When I go out for my afternoon walk, I can, on the one hand, watch the wonderful progress of rising anthills in the seams of sidewalks.  On the other hand, I can turn a corner and see, to the west, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains towering beyond the blue and glittering expanse of Puget Sound.  We live our lives between these anthills and peaks.

Yesterday, I watched a single white sail move across the waters of the Sound from south to north, now in the sunlight, now in the shadow of a passing cloud.

                    Times Go By Turns

The loppèd tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorriest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moistening shower;
Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The sea of fortune doth not ever flow,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb;
Her tides hath equal times to come and go,
Her loom doth weave the fine and coarsest web;
No joy so great but runneth to an end,
No hap so hard but may in fine amend.

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay:
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

A chance may win that by mischance was lost;
The net that holds no great, takes little fish;
In some things all, in all things none are crossed;
Few all they need, but none have all they wish.
Unmeddled joys here to no man befall;
Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all.

Robert Southwell (1561-1595), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Sloane 1949).

Bertram Priestman, "The Great Green Hills of Yorkshire" (1913)

These things the poets and the ancient philosophers tell us about "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") are regarded by many moderns as mere "truisms."  As if the modern world had advanced beyond them in all of its supposed knowingness and sophistication.  As for me, I am quite content to live by truisms.  They are, after all, true.

     Tilling the field:
The man who asked the way
     Has disappeared.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 165.

Life is not a matter of metaphysical speculation or of theory.  Science, politics, economics, and other modern (and utopian) preoccupations are of no relevance whatsoever in our soul's contingent world.  It is all beautifully simple.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 85.

Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


The azaleas and the rhododendrons are in full bloom in my neighborhood. There are dozens of varieties on display, none of which I know by name. No matter:  the colors leave you speechless.  As I walked among them yesterday afternoon -- a sunny day, the scent of newly-mown grass in the air -- the meaning of life suddenly became clear to me:  our souls are placed upon the earth in order to watch the trees and flowers bloom each spring.

It makes perfect sense.  Consider the alternatives.  Have our souls been quickened so that we may watch television news shows on a daily basis?  Is the purpose of our existence to vote in elections?  Having emerged from eternity, and sensing that our time here is short, should we make a beeline to the nearest shopping mall?


To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
          Else may the silent feet,
                    Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good,
          Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev'n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
          The glory that is by:
                    Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
          Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
          The bliss in which they move?
                    Like statues dead
They up and down are carried,
          Yet neither see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go,
To move in spirit to and fro,
          To mind the good we see,
                    To taste the sweet,
Observing all the things we meet
          How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey,
          Admire each pretty flow'r
                    With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
          The marks of his great pow'r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
          To cull the dew that lies
                    On ev'ry blade,
From every blossom, till we lade
          Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
          The fructifying sun;
                    To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
          For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
          May rich as kings be thought:
                    But there's a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight
          To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk
'Tis that towards which at last we walk;
          For we may by degrees
                    Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
          From viewing herbs and trees.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (Oxford University Press 1910).  I have modernized the spelling. The italicized words are in the original.

William Dyce (1806-1864), "Sketch of a Doorway with a Water Barrel"

At the heart of A. E. Housman's poetry is an unassuageable grief.  For this reason, there are those who feel that his poetry is "gloomy," or that it lacks "variety."  I respectfully disagree.  By the time we reach a certain age (that age differs in each of us), the themes that govern our mind, heart, and soul can be counted on the fingers of a hand (or less).

Bashō is, I think, correct:

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

Harrowing one's own small field is an excellent way to spend a life.  There are too many busybodies abroad in the world, most of whom seem compelled to tell us how we ought to live our lives, while their own fields are full of brambles and tares.

Is Housman's grief attributable to unrequited love?  Or does it reflect a preoccupation with our mortality?  Neither?  Both?  It doesn't matter. Whether we want to or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, we each develop our own philosophy of life.

I find nothing wrong with Housman's view of existence.  He is harrowing his field.  Moreover, we must be careful not to be too reductive.  If one sees only "gloom" in Housman's poetry, then one has not looked closely enough.  He could enjoy a walk in spring as much as any of us.

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
     And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must
     And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
     To look at the leaves uncurled
And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
     Are lying about the world.

A. E. Housman, Poem IX, More Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

Albert Rutherston, "The Pump, Nash End" (1931)

Have no fear, gentle readers, I do not intend to turn this blog into "The Diary of My Hip Replacement."  But I must say that my recent foray into medical technology has given me a renewed appreciation of the simple wonder of being able to walk, without pain, among rhododendrons and azaleas on a spring afternoon.  I say this as someone who has, in the past, expressed skepticism about the modern gods of Progress and Science.  The technological products of Science and Progress can indeed be blessings. Blogs?  Yes!  Hip replacements?  Yes!  "Selfies"?  No.

Where does one draw the line in this technology business?  I don't know.  I suspect that it has something to do with whether -- like poetry, like art in general -- a particular product of technology brings us a renewed gratitude for the world around us, and for the human beings who inhabit that world. One step at a time.

          The Stepping Stones

I have my yellow boots on to walk
Across the shires where I hide
Away from my true people and all
I can't put easily into my life.

So you will see I am stepping on
The stones between the runnels getting
Nowhere nowhere.  It is almost
Embarrassing to be alive alone.

Take my hand and pull me over from
The last stone on to the moss and
The three celandines.  Now my dear
Let us go home across the shires.

W. S. Graham, Collected Poems, 1942-1977 (Faber and Faber 1979).

Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (1935)