Sunday, July 31, 2016

The World

The world is perfect just as it is.  I would not change a thing.  We dwell in Paradise.  I am reminded of this each day when I take my afternoon walk.

Of course, Paradise is in a constant state of change.  And, as for you and me, our time in Paradise is short.  This is something that takes getting used to.  Encountering a lovely distant prospect (the waters of Puget Sound stretching away towards the Olympic Mountains) or a local miracle (the swallows diving and curving above the wild grasses in a meadow), my desire is to freeze things in place, to somehow make the moment eternal. "He wanted to feel the same way over and over.//He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing." (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Not in this world.  Otherwise, where would beauty have its source?

Hence, transience is a given.  But I cannot escape the feeling that there is something else afoot.  The world seems to be saying something.  It seems to have a life of its own.  This is where one enters the realm of ineffability. Here is one way of putting it:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  Or, consider this:

"To every Form of being is assigned,"
Thus calmly spake the venerable Sage,
"An active Principle: -- howe'er removed
From sense and observation, it subsists
In all things, in all natures; in the stars
Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds,
In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
The moving waters, and the invisible air.
Whate'er exists hath properties that spread
Beyond itself, communicating good,
A simple blessing, or with evil mixed;
Spirit that knows no insulated spot,
No chasm, no solitude; from link to link
It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."

William Wordsworth, "The Excursion," Book IX ("Discourse of the Wanderer and an Evening Visit to the Lake"), lines 1- 15, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 286.

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream"

"Spirit that knows no insulated spot,/No chasm, no solitude; from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."  This possibility seems perfectly reasonable and congenial to me.  Can it be proved?  Of course not. But here is the marvelous thing:  it can never be disproved either, no matter how many scientists and philosophers and theologians are brought to bear on the proposition.  It is a possibility that lies beyond their limited areas of competence.  They cannot touch it.

Rather, it is a matter of human truth and poetic truth.  It is also a matter of deciding whether one wishes to live in a disenchanted world or in an enchanted world.  I've never been fond of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" and the putative "triumph" of Reason, Science, and Progress.  We all know how well that has worked out.  I prefer the notion of "the Soul of all the worlds" circulating around me.

     The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.  So bluish clouds
Occurred above the empty house and the leaves
Of the rhododendrons rattled their gold,
As if someone lived there.  Such floods of white
Came bursting from the clouds.  So the wind
Threw its contorted strength around the sky.

Could you have said the bluejay suddenly
Would swoop to earth?  It is a wheel, the rays
Around the sun.  The wheel survives the myths.
The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.
To think of a dove with an eye of grenadine
And pines that are cornets, so it occurs,
And a little island full of geese and stars:
It may be that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate his life with life
That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

"As if someone lived there."  That is what I have in mind.  "Life/That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life/That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze." In other words, a world that is enchanted.

John Lawson, "Dean Quarry"

From July of 1797 until July of 1798, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Alfoxden House in Somerset.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived nearby.  During this time, Wordsworth was immersed in writing the long multipart poem which bore the overall title of "The Recluse."  The poem proceeded by fits and starts and in many permutations:  "The Excursion," "The Ruined Cottage," "The Pedlar," "Home at Grasmere," and "The Prelude" are all predecessors or portions of it.

A manuscript notebook (now known as "the Alfoxden notebook") survives from that period.  It contains fragments of blank verse that reflect Wordsworth's preoccupation with "the Soul of all the worlds."

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

The lines "bound/Together by a link, and with a soul/Which makes all one" echo "from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds" in the passage above from "The Excursion."  Thoughts such as these are dismissed by ironic moderns as a quaint form of outmoded pantheism.  The modern mind is actually quite limited in the scope of what it deems to be acceptable thought.  It has no idea of what to make of lines such as these:

                               Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 340.

Even though a thing or an object has "no power to hold/Articulate language," isn't it possible that it has the power to hold inarticulate language?  Thus:  "In all forms of things/There is a mind."  There's that archaic pantheism again.

Here is another lovely fragment:

                                              These populous slopes
With all their groves and with their murmurous woods,
Giving a curious feeling to the mind
Of peopled solitude.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 341.

"Peopled solitude" is a wonderful phrase.  As is "murmurous woods."  (An instance of inarticulate language on the part of the world, I would suggest.) Those who are not fond of Wordsworth have little time for this sort of thing.  I will not argue the point.  I will only say that Wordsworth was onto something that is neither outmoded nor quaint.  The possible world that he describes has not been replaced or superseded by the newer, ironic world.

John Lawson, "Landscape, Dunlop"

For all of its soi-disant "freedom," "openness," and "progressivism," the modern world is in fact alarmingly (and risibly) narrow-minded.  This is not a political comment.  (I have no interest in politics.)  Nor is it a theological comment.  Rather, it is a comment on the limited range of possibilities that most moderns are content to live with.

Poets such as William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens shake us by the shoulders and say:  Look, there is something you are missing.  There is more to the world, and to your life, than meets the eye.  They expand the range of possibilities.  They open vast territories that would otherwise be beyond our ken.

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).  The poem is the final poem in Stevens's final book.

John Lawson, "Killermont House"

Sunday, July 24, 2016


My daily walk takes me through several tree tunnels.  Here is my variation on Wordsworth:  "My heart leaps up when I behold". . . a tunnel of trees awaiting me.  I never tire of walking down the tunnels, and I hope I never will.  Wordsworth again:  "So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!" These Romantic effusions are nearly always correct, despite what ironic moderns may think of them.

The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me.  In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers:  rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.

       The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock."  "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection.  A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).

"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times.  It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens.  In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period.  But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means."  I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)

Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me.  He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold.  Yet he is one of my favorite poets.  Why?  Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me).  I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.

Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry:  "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success."  (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.)  Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote.  In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems.  But Jarrell's point is an excellent one:  at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human.  For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.

In the same essay, Jarrell writes:  "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."  (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor").  But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.

               The Countryman

Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,

Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.

He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,

The name.  He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --

Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950).  Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.

"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem.  It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years:  "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape."  But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas:  "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74.  These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).

Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human.  This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above.  Stevens seems to have been aware of this:  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"  (There's that word "countryman" again.)  These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.

But there is a softening and a warming at the end.  "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines:  "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way."  These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth:  "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (Italics added.)  Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:

"The poet finds that as between these two sources:  the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata.  In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch.  In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."

Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).

Here is the first poem in "The Rock."  Stevens did not place it there by chance.

                         An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means."  I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line.  There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are."  Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"?  But it is the words of the poems that matter.  "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ."  In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Wallace Stevens,  Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing."  "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."

     From out of the darkness
Of the short night
     Comes the River Ōi.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.

Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"

Sunday, July 17, 2016


In a week such as this, when we are once again reminded of the presence of evil in the world, and are saddened at the loss of innocent lives, I suspect that many of us wonder:  how does one go about the business of living in times such as these?  We all know the answer to that question:  we must live in a manner that preserves and perpetuates everything that evil hopes to destroy.

Are poetry and art trivial and of no account in an age of barbarism?  Of course not.  They are never more important than in times such as these. The barbarians have no conception of what it means to be human.  Poetry and art embody all that is good and humane in civilization.  They stand as a direct reproach to, and a repudiation of, evil and barbarity.  Moreover, evil and barbarity cannot touch them.

                                     St. Ursanne

Leaving the viaduct on the left, and coming over the hill,
We came to a small town, four towers at the corners,
The streets narrow and not dark,
The children playing in green gardens by the waterside.

Was it at the Swan or the White Horse that we stopped?
We walked up to the church and the stone cloister,
Grass growing among the tangle of votive ribbons,
The wax flowers and the twisted wire.

We heard the town-crier ringing a bell under the town clock --
Something about a wandering cow and a job for a waggoner,
Then we looked at the watermill by the stone bridge,
And went back for a Rossi or a Cinzano.

That was at Eastertide, and the fields and meadows
Mellow with cowslips:  there were boys on bicycles
With bandoliers of jonquils, and there was an old lady
With a basket of primroses and violets.

It was a quiet town, and not yet broken,
The people kindly, and the priest "a good one as priests go,"
There was a football team, and a lad who enters from the country in the
Singing:  Ohé Oh, Ohé Oh!

Michael Roberts, Orion Marches (Faber and Faber 1939).

The poem was first published in April of 1938, on the eve of that generation's age of barbarism.  The horror and suffering that followed are incomprehensible, and cannot be minimized or forgotten.  But do they render the poem irrelevant?  Quite the opposite.  The human world of the poem remains unchanged.

John Maclauchlan Milne (1886-1957)
"Mountainous Landscape with Fir Trees and a Lake" (1931)

In this post I intend to give mountains their due after my recent paeans to seasides.  But "St. Ursanne" brings to mind a wonderful seaside poem by   R. S. Thomas that has appeared here in the past.  In both poems, a quotidian scene casually unfolds before us.  (I do not use "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.)  Nothing of importance takes place.  Or so it seems.  Yet both scenes contain all of the beauty and truth of life.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Loch Tulla" (1933)

A good poem is a complex and ever-evolving thing.  It has its origin in the minute particulars of the poet's personal experience of the world.  Those particulars are reconstituted and transformed through the poet's act of imagination.  A good poem is also an act of preservation:  it preserves the poet's imaginative response to a unique set of particulars.  This begins as a wholly personal act on the part of the poet:  Michael Roberts and R. S. Thomas felt compelled to preserve their experiences of a particular day in St. Ursanne and of a particular day in Abersoch.  But, by reading their poems, we in turn preserve and perpetuate those experiences.

Each of us comes to a poem with our own unique set of feelings, thoughts, and circumstances, all of which influence how we react to the poem.  This does not mean that we change the poem into what we want it to be.  (This is where most modern "literary criticism" goes wrong.)  Rather, the poem, which was a wholly personal act of imagination and preservation by the poet, now awakens a wholly personal response in each of us.

At this point, one of the wonders and beauties of poetry emerges:  each poem carries with it the possibility of commencing a never-ending and ever-multiplying chain of human responses.


High and solemn mountains guard Rioupéroux,
Small untidy village where the river drives a mill:
Frail as wood anemones, white and frail were you,
And drooping a little, like the slender daffodil.

Oh I will go to France again, and tramp the valley through,
And I will change these gentle clothes for clog and corduroy,
And work with the mill-hands of black Rioupéroux,
And walk with you, and talk with you, like any other boy.

James Elroy Flecker, The Bridge of Fire: Poems (Elkin Mathews 1907).

There you have it:  by reading "Rioupéroux" we have just preserved and prolonged a sequence of human interaction that began when the poem was published in 1907.  James Elroy Flecker died of tuberculosis in 1915 at the age of 30.  But we have just renewed his life as a poet.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Cioch na h-Oighe" (1942)

Bernard Spencer wrote the following lovely and moving poem after his wife Nora died of complications from tuberculosis in 1947.  Prior to her death, they had been planning a holiday in the Alps.

                          At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one "among the pines"?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder & Stoughton 1963).

The lines "darling, how did you think I could forget you,/you who for ever stayed behind?" refer to the couple's frequent separations due to Spencer's foreign postings while he was employed by the British Council.  This included a long separation during the Second World War, when he was stranded in Greece and Egypt, while she remained in England.

Thus ends our brief Alpine tour (with a detour to Wales).  St. Ursanne, Abersoch, Rioupéroux, and Courmayeur as seen through the eyes of poets: all beyond the reach of evil and untouchable by barbarism.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Lairig Ghru" (1931)

Saturday, July 9, 2016


The appearance of Robert Frost's "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" in my previous post got me to thinking about other poems with seaside settings. The comments that I made in my June 5 post about the calming effect of seascapes, and their ability to induce reverie, also come to mind.  Of course, any pleasing natural setting has the capacity to calm us and to lead us into reverie.  But I confess to being partial to the sort of reverie that seaside locations are wont to provoke.

In saying this, I do not intend to scant the particular evocative qualities of, say, mountains or forests or cornfields or streams.  For instance, I have said here before that I would be happy to spend eternity lying beneath the boughs of a tree on a sunny day as the fluttering leaves -- in kaleidoscopic shades of green, shot through with sunlight, set against a blue sky -- whisper and rustle overhead in a soft breeze.  "The wings/Of doves among dim branches far above."  "Noon a purple glow."

Still, the coming-to-the-end-of-things feeling that haunts seasides is unique in its reverie-inducing qualities.  The feeling is equivocal and complex.  You may feel that you have exhausted all possibilities by arriving at the margins of land.  On the other hand, you may feel, as you gaze outward, that the possibilities are endless.  It depends on the day.  It depends on how your life has turned out.

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

My beloved poets of the 1890s seem to have existed in a state of perpetual reverie.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."  Hence, it is not surprising that, in their poems, we often encounter them sunk in thought in lonely autumn seaside villages or reclining on deep-green hillside swards above deep-blue harbors.  I find this very alluring.

Brittany was the favorite place of escape for Ernest Dowson.  Here is the final stanza of his "In a Breton Cemetery," which has appeared here in the past:

And now night falls,
     Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
     A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
     And dear dead people with pale hands
     Beckon me to their lands.

But Dieppe, not Brittany, was the quintessential seaside destination of the poets of the Nineties.  It offered them the best of both fin de siècle worlds:  a hint of urban decadence (bars and casinos) in a dreamlike natural landscape consisting of, by turns, fog, blinding sunlight, and mist. All unfolding on the edge of eternity.  With lurid sunsets.


The pale grey sea crawls stealthily
Up the pale lilac of the beach;
A bluer grey, the waters reach
To where the horizon ends the sea.

Flushed with a tinge of dusky rose,
The clouds, a twilit lavender,
Flood the low sky, and duskier
The mist comes flooding in, and flows

Into the twilight of the land,
And darkness, coming softly down,
Rustles across the fading sand
And folds its arms about the town.

Arthur Symons, Amoris Victima (Leonard Smithers 1897).  According to a note which accompanies the poem in his Collected Works, Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on August 22, 1895.

As I have observed in the past, no one does this sort of thing better than the Nineties poets.  Of course, they are regarded as quaint and old-fashioned caricatures by moderns, who can only evaluate the past in terms of their own debilitating and distancing irony.  They cannot conceive of the possibility that the poets of the Nineties wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

I sometimes imagine myself in my final years.  I see myself living in a small seaside town.  Any town, any sea, any country will do.  Each day I walk slowly along a promenade beside the sea.  The tides go in and out.  Along the promenade, at intervals, are deciduous trees.  Any type will do.  Each year, until the end, I watch the leaves come and go and the tides go in and out.  All possibilities will have been exhausted.  Yet the possibilities will still be endless.

         September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"

My daily walk takes me past a large meadow that slopes gently down for a quarter-mile or so to a bluff beside Puget Sound.  The meadow is covered with tall grasses, with a wild rose bush here and there.  At this time of year a single patch of purple-pink and purple-white sweet peas -- a rough circle about 30 or 40 feet in diameter -- is abloom in the center of the meadow, about halfway to the edge of the bluff.  Beyond the meadow the water stretches away to green-blue islands and to the Olympic Mountains.

The world is indeed Paradise.  Which we tend to forget.  I know I do.


O is it death or life
That sounds like something strangely known
In this subsiding out of strife,
This slow sea-monotone?

A sound, scarce heard through sleep,
Murmurous as the August bees
That fill the forest hollows deep
About the roots of trees.

O is it life or death,
O is it hope or memory,
That quiets all things with this breath
Of the eternal sea?

Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Elkin Matthews and John Lane 1892). Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on June 20, 1890.  It is part of a six-poem sequence titled "At Dieppe."

Richard Eurich, "Fawley Beach" (1939)