Sunday, June 5, 2016

Other Worlds

Apart from my first eleven years, I have spent my life along salt-water shores:  the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound (an appendage of the Pacific), and the Andaman Sea (for two years).  Hence, I have gotten used to having a body of water at my shoulder.  Mind you, I am not suggesting that this is a superior way to live.  For me, it is simply a matter of happenstance, and something that I have grown accustomed to.

Still, one cannot underestimate the calming effect of having an expanse of water to look out on, whether it be bright blue and glittering, iron grey, or any of the infinite variations in between.  The sight has lightened my soul on innumerable occasions.  "Given my heart/A change of mood/And saved some part/Of a day I had rued," as Robert Frost wrote of a different landscape.

"The sea is a mirror, not only to the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but to all one's dreams, to all one's speculations. . . . The sea tells us that everything is changing and that nothing ever changes, that tides go out and return, that all existence is a rhythm; neither calm nor storm breaks the rhythm, only hastens or holds it back for a moment."

Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands (1918), page 296.

Yet there is, withal, an abiding otherness to the sea.

          The Tuft of Kelp

All dripping in tangles green,
     Cast up by a lonely sea
If purer for that, O Weed,
     Bitterer, too, are ye?

Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).

I have often encountered tufts of kelp along the strand, high and dry amid the flotsam and jetsam, and they do have a strange and otherworldly aspect to them.  They emanate a sense of loneliness that goes beyond being out of their element.

John Brett, "The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs" (1871)

The sea's impassive face may induce serenity and reverie, but that impassivity is a mask:  upon it and below it lie strangeness and mystery. Arthur Symons speaks of the sea as a mirror of the sky, but I think of the sea and the sky as parallel and complementary unfathomable worlds whose depths we can never plumb.  We mustn't be seduced or misled by Science, which is always willing to provide us with "explanations" that tell us nothing.  Scientists possess no knowledge that can touch the secrets of the sea and the sky.

                        By the Sea

Why does the sea moan evermore?
     Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
     All earth's full rivers cannot fill
     The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.

Sheer miracles of loveliness
     Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
     Blow flower-like; just enough alive
     To blow and multiply and thrive.

Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
     Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
     Are born without a pang, and die
     Without a pang, and so pass by.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).  Rossetti uses the word "blow" (lines 9 and 10) in its common pre-20th century sense:  "to blossom."

John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)

When I went out for a walk this past Wednesday afternoon, the sky was a dull grey-white.  I found myself wishing for a brilliant blue sky.  I then realized how misguided I was.  The world is always just what it is, and is perfect just as it is.  Who am I to cavil if it fails to meet my expectations?  I felt ungrateful.

As I walked, I noticed how lovely the deepening green boughs of the trees looked swaying against the grey sky.  The swallows paid the dull sky no mind:  they curved and dived above the tall wild grasses in the meadows, taking their evening meal.  "Sheer miracles of loveliness" indeed surround us on all sides and at all times.

                               The World Below the Brine

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle,
          openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of
          light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and
          the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to
          the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with
          his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and
          the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
          breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by
          beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1860).

Whitman and Rossetti lived in the 19th century, a time that lacked our access to the technology that now enables us to see in vivid detail the heretofore "unlooked-on bed" of "the world below the brine."  But mere seeing is not the end of the story, is it?  The wonder expressed by Whitman and Rossetti remains, for that wonder is a product of the recognition of the other mysterious beings with whom we share the world.

John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)

Today, I was given a sunny day, although I had not asked for it.  Beside the path down which I walked, I saw white field daisies, pink-purple sweet peas, and the white blossoms of blackberry bushes.  Puget Sound and the sky were blue on top of blue, merging in the distance.  Which was mirroring which?

"[A]s ecstasy is only possible to one who is conscious of the possibility of despair, so the sea, as it detaches us from the world and our safeguards and our happy forgetfulnesses, and sets us by ourselves, as momentary as the turn of a wave, and mattering hardly more to the universe, gives us, if we will take them, moments of almost elemental joy."

Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands, page 297.

I would respectfully disagree with Symons to this extent:  it is not solely the sea that has the capacity to provide us with "elemental joy."  Nor would I qualify "elemental joy" with "almost."

The message of all these worlds -- earth, water, and sky -- is the same: Never take anything for granted.

     On the sandy beach,
     Long is the spring day.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 48.

John Brett, "The Norman Archipelago (Channel Islands)" (1885)


Cheryl said...

I'm here too under this same Seattle sky and beside our Puget Sound shore--and today was a beautiful day--but my eyes don't see as well as yours. Thank you for reminding me to look a little longer and see a little deeper!

Bex said...

For all but about 5 years of my 68 years of life, I have lived next to the sea. Not idealistically right beside it, so I could see it out my windows, but within a mile of it so that when there is a sea-breeze, I can smell the salt water in my open windows and outside. Those 5+ years spent living in "interior" towns/cities felt so claustrophobic! Not being able to get to the oceanside within a 5-10 minute period felt so confining and stifling! Being on the edge of a country is, for me, a necessary situation.

Stephen Pentz said...

Cheryl: Yes, it was a wonderful day, wasn't it? Our late springs and summers are one of our well-kept secrets: no one would believe us if we told them it doesn't rain here all the time.

As for your eyes not "see[ing] as well as" mine: I think not! I am constantly inattentive -- sleepwalking through life. It is a daily task to remind myself to, as you say, "look a little longer and see a little deeper." When I begin my afternoon walk, I often say to myself: "No thinking! Just look and listen." I inevitably fail. A post such as this one is another reminder to myself to pay attention.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bex: It's very nice to hear from you again. I agree: after one has lived near the water's edge for many years, it does gradually become "a necessary situation." But I suspect that those who have spent their lives, say, up in the mountains or out on the plains feel that theirs is "a necessary situation" as well. As I said in the post, I don't claim that this is a "superior" way to live: it is happenstance and something that one becomes accustomed to. But different sorts of beauties abound wherever you find yourself.

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

RT said...

Your fine posting reminds me of my love-hate relationship with the sea. Let me explain. Growing up landlocked in western Pennsylvania, the Atlantic Ocean was a seductive vacation getaway location for me and my family(e.g. Atlantic City NJ, Kitty Hawk NC, Clearwater Beach FL, and more), which I loved, but I got full immersion -- so to speak -- when I joined the Navy and spent more than a quarter of a century either on coastlines or on ships far out at sea, which I hated. I think it was Samuel Johnson who said something like this: being at sea on a ship is like being in a prison but with the added risk of drowning. There is the paradox of tranquility and terror that I associate with the sea, but now, even though I live on the Gulf coast, less than a mile from the beach and ocean, which I never visit, I can vicariously experience the best and the worst of the sea via literature. That, for me, is sufficient. Your posting and your blog, BTW, reminds me that perhaps I should highlight more poetry at my blog, Solitary Praxis, especially since poetry so succinctly says almost everything worth saying in the world.

CW said...

I have just discovered your blog and want you to know that a line in your post inspired this poem today:

Today I was given a sunny day,
though I had not asked for it.
I was given roses. A path to walk,
and talk. A child to wrap
in a sweater.

A sea of purple flowers
shivering like fish beneath the water
feeling the warm touch of sun
and cloud (cool again) and sun.

The leaves, the leaves.
"They have to spring into life fast,"
says my companion.
The feeling comes of moments
when I too have sprung into life
fast enough.

I am happy
to be walking
among so many flowers.

Stephen Pentz said...

Tim: As a confirmed landlubber, I am in no position to second-guess your experience of being at sea. My time on salt water is limited to car ferries, not "the bounding main." I imagine the view of the sea from its dead center may not be as appealing as standing on shore and watching the water glitter in the sun. Still, you ought to make that short trip to the shore more often! Just a thought.

Of course, I entirely agree with your description of poetry. You have concisely described why this humble enterprise exists.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

CW: Thank you for making use of my plain prose in such a lovely fashion! You have captured very well the gifts that await us on our walks.

I'm pleased that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return. Thank you again for the poem.

Mudpuddle said...

first - timer: delightful reflections and quotes. i, too , walk every day and occasionally attempt the odd haiku... distraction and paying attention are both part of the whateveritis... it's all good, whether we notice it or not. noticing, as well, is mu...

Unknown said...

Stephen, hello,

Thanks as usual, yes the sea calms and provokes our thinking. I am reminded of this poem, The Sea Question by Elizabeth Smithers.

Keep well
Kind regards, Bernadette

The sea asks 'How is your life now?'

It does so obliquely, changing colour.

It is never the same on any two visits.

It is never the same in any particular

Only in generalities, tide and such matters

Wave height and suction, pebbles that rattle.

It doesn't presume to wear a white coat

But it questions you like a psychologist

As you walk beside it on its long couch.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for sharing your thoughts. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you'll return.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bernadette: Thank you for sharing the poem -- both it and the poet are new to me. It fits perfectly here. I like the thought that the sea "questions" us: it does tend to provoke reflection.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.