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)


RT said...

As much as I enjoy your selections, again as always, today -- in the spirit of your theme -- I remain partial to Wordsworth's hymn to perambulation, which I hope you will enjoy:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

mary f.ahearn said...

I try to take a walk everyday - a solitary one. There is so much to see and to delight in every day, every season. This is when thoughts roll around for poems,prose,as if in a waking dream on some days. I am happy to hear you are doing well and enjoying the season. And taking walks. Today's great joy for me was seeing an old horse and donkey together in the middle of their buttercup field under deep gray skies. A painter would have made a treasure out of it. And yes, I wished I had my camera along.
Harrowing our small fields, harrowing our joy.
Thanks for the wonderful poems and your thoughts,

Sam Vega said...

"And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
Are lying about the world."

That's interesting, isn't it, especially given what you say about Housman. Scattered around the world, or telling lies about it?

Ultra Monk said...

Nice blog. thanks.

Laura D. said...

Housman's poetry strikes a balance, I think, between enduring grief and pain, on the one hand, and on the other, modest joys and a cautious hope. They can be sweetly wistful. Though his poems lay open my soul, they never leave it bleeding. I don't see gloom in him.

Two of the paintings in this post are looking out a door. I hope you're getting outside enough.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I am happy that you are out walking and enjoying the beauties of Nature again. I had a similarly delightful experience on Monday coming into a beautiful birch glade thick with bluebells and a few late primroses flowering close to a stream edge in our local woodland.

I'm perfectly happy to be on this earth to witness to such wonder. Having seen the volume of traffic on the main road into a nearby town on my way to the woods I can only assume a significant number of people were headed there to wander aimlessly around the shops.
Perhaps I am being a little curmudgeonly if the thought occurs to me that if they are happy to spend their lives doing that it will probably mean fewer people in the woods, a greater degree of peace and quiet and the prospect of being able to better enjoy the wonders on nature. I don't mean to sound selfish, but I find it particularly infuriating when savouring the beauties of the natural world to have it intruded upon by people speaking far too loudly on their mobile phones or tearing along woodland paths on their bicycles.

The Traherne poem is lovely, and the W S Graham, a poem entirely new to me.

I recently came upon a poem entitled A garland for John Clare by the World War Two poet Sidney Keyes. I name I know, but a poet whose work I confess I have never read. I thought it well worth reading and a poem I shall come back to. You may already be familiar with this poem, if not you can find it at this link:


Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: Thank you very much for Wordsworth's poem. I try to visit it each year in spring, so I appreciate your sharing it here. Many of Wordsworth's poems have become ingrained in our cultural memory in a way that makes it difficult to see them freshly. But I think it is always possible to find, and feel, something new each time we read them.

Thank you for visiting again. I've been enjoying your series of posts on Dickinson's poetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: That is a lovely scene -- thank you for sharing it. That is exactly what I have been missing due to my lack of walks: the simple, yet unexpected and wonderful, things that always appear on walks, no matter how many times you have walked the same route.

Thank you very much for your kind words. As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Yes, that "lying about" is a nice touch, isn't it? After all, Housman was a textual scholar by profession, with a wicked wit. But, beyond the word-play, it does encapsulate his view of the world.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: You're welcome. I'm pleased you liked the post. Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Laura D.: That is an excellent description of Housman's poetry. It captures perfectly the overall emotional tone of his poems. The phrase "sweetly wistful" is very apt, I think. Thank you very much for those thoughts.

As for the doorways: yes, these days I do feel the need to walk through those doors out into the light and trees. But the doctor's orders after my hip replacement are to do so in moderation.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that it's the walk itself that reveals the beauty of spring. It's the imagination working in conjunction with the world, a confluence of the two. I once heard a woman refer to the Grand Canyon as "nothing but a damn hole in the ground." Clearly, any walk would be wasted with her, as would be any sight available to a keen eye.

Here's what essayist Rebecca Solnit has to say about the mind and landscape working in concert:

"The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. The creates an odd consonance between
internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was
there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making."
- Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: It sounds as though you've been out enjoying the spring. As for people talking on their mobile phones while they are ostensibly out to enjoy the natural word: it leaves me puzzled.

I'm pleased you liked the poems. Thank you very much for the link to the poem by Sidney Keyes, which is new to me. The poem is lovely, and is touching in light of our knowledge that Keyes would die in North Africa two years later. I particularly like the lines: "Lastly, I'd ask a favour of you, John:/The secret of your singing, of the high/Persons and lovely voices we have lost./You knew them all." (I haven't done a scientific survey, but I sense that more poems have been written in homage to John Clare and Edward Thomas than to any other English poets. I think this is understandable. For some reason, they tend to reach people deeply, and change their lives.)

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Your second sentence sounds like something Wallace Stevens might have said, given his belief in the primacy of the Imagination, and the crucial interaction between the Imagination and the World. To him, this interaction is what life is all about. And thank you as well for the passage from Rebecca Solnit, who is new to me. The passage is apt in this context.

Thanks again.

Mudpuddle said...

Spectacular pictures, enlightening thoughts, graphic description, how could it be better...? i'm inspired to go walk in my own woods... many tx.

Martin Caseley said...

Glad to hear you're getting about again, and thanks especially for the two door paintings - beautiful. The W S Graham poem features his deceptively casual phrasing- 'my dear' - but I find that many of his poems are actually very rigorously constructed. So many of them seem addressed to Nessie, his partner.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you very much. You're welcome. I'm pleased that you liked the post -- and that it may have inspired you to go for a walk in the woods. I've just returned from a walk myself.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Caseley: Thank you very much for visiting and for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I am fond of those two door paintings as well -- they seem to invite us to venture . . . somewhere.

I confess that I am mostly ignorant of W. S. Graham's poetry -- I only know his work through anthologies. But I do remember reading some poems of his to Nessie, including "To My Wife at Midnight," which I have in front of me at the moment (it appears in The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry, edited by Edna Longley). It's a nice coincidence that you mention the phrase "my dear," for it appears more than once in the poem (with which you are no doubt already familiar). For instance, these lovely lines appear in Section 3:

Are you asleep? I hear
Your heart under the pillow
Saying my dear my dear

My dear for all it's worth.
Where is the dun's moor
Which began your breath?

Thank you again. I appreciate hearing from you.

Deb said...

Thinking of you and wishing you well in your recovery. It's a year now since I came out of hospital after a major op, and the time has flown. Amazing how the body can recuperate so quickly. Hope your experience was and is every bit as happy as mine was, and that you are out walking and enjoying nature again in next to no time.

And thank you for a few more delightful poems to add to my growing collection of favourites...

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Thank you so much for your thoughts. The recovery is going well -- my walks are getting lengthier each day. As I have remarked in my responses to comments, I am fortunate that this was something elective, and not a matter of dealing with something unexpected and threatening. Still, I understand your comments about the body's ability to recuperate. Perhaps it is a cliché to say so, but one has to experience these things to appreciate how important our health is. All else pales. My ability to now walk without pain in each step gives me a renewed appreciation for the simple ability to walk about in the world.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.