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)


Brian said...

An excellent reprieve from a busy day. Thank-you

I find Emily Dickinson gives a fine insight into how poetry is at once the vision of a particular consciousness and a living thing creating a wide range of personal response. Each age can also be each person, I suppose.

The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —

Stephen Pentz said...

Brian: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for the poem by Dickinson, which is new to me. It fits perfectly here, and states far more articulately and beautifully what I was bumblingly and inadequately attempting to convey.

I agree with you that "each age can also be each person": after all, it is each reader of a poem who acts as the "disseminating" "lens" within his or her own time. And we must also remember that each Age is in some sense a Dark Age. I suppose that readers of poetry can be likened to the monks in medieval times who preserved civilization, line-by-line, as they produced manuscripts in their candle-lit rooms. It is an act of preservation and continuation.

Thank you again.

George said...

In Basil Bunting's "Let Them Remember Samangan" (dated 1937), there is the "wall looking out to the high mountains." The poem does carry a sense of how fragile respites can be.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the reference to the poem, which is new to me, given that my acquaintance with Bunting's poetry is limited. I have tracked it down on the internet: it is lovely, and is a good companion to the poems in the post, especially "St. Ursanne": "so that the heart never rests from love of the city/without lies or riches." Your point about "how fragile respites can be" is an excellent one.

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

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I have been reading your posts regularly, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to comment for a while. Summer is a very busy time at the university getting ready for the start of the new semester in September and in between work commitments most of my free time has been spent tending to my allotments, not in the least an onerous task, time consuming, but one happily untouched by what can seem to be the almost daily occurrence of barbarity and evil.

Closeness to nature and involvement in the natural and timeless cycles of life as well as literature and art are certainly not trivial. I would contend they are of crucial importance; refuges of safety and sanity, reminders to us all of what is important to underpin and ensure a kind, tolerant and civil society.

I came across this quote from the writer Annie Dillard recently which seemed to my mind to fit here “"Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?"

The Michael Roberts poem is wonderful and entirely new to me. I hope you don’t mind but reading R S Thomas’s Abersoch brought another wonderful Thomas poem to mind, one which I’m sure you are very familiar with, but a poem personally I never tire of reading, and one which I think is a perfect example of the poem as a complex and ever-evolving thing that resonates through the details of a poets personal experience to echo particulars and moments in our own lives, and such moments remain, hopefully immune from the prevalence of evil.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Bruce Floyd said...

The poet, it is true, dies, but the great poets leave an "attar so immense," words "distill[ing] amazing sense from ordinary meanings, that we learn to see the word in a different way (see the Dickinson poem below). I think Brian, who I am sure is familiar with this poem, would concur. You and your faithful readers may or may not agree but to Dickinson, and her life confirms her comment, the great poet is the discloser of insights that reveal to us the poverty of our imaginations, It's interesting, as odd as it sounds, to compare this poem with Hardy's "Afterwards"-a poem about perceiving the beauty and wonder and magic of the quotidian. Beauty and truth, if you forgive the prating platitude, are not found in Ithaca, but in the common things seen and experienced on the way to Ithaca Proust notes the same characteristic in the painting of Chardin, who can, says Proust, find the nimbused glory in a bowl of fruit on a modest table. And of course you have taught us the glory of the haiku, its taking the commonplace and peeling it to the essence of its beauty and revelation.

This was a Poet—It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it—before

Of Pictures, the Discloser
The Poet—it is He
Entitles Us—by Contrast
To ceaseless Poverty

Of portion—so unconscious
The Robbing—could not harm
Himself—to Him—a Fortune
Exterior—to Time

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your thoughts on the subject at hand. And thank you for the passage from Annie Dillard, which I agree goes well here. Your posting of R. S. Thomas's "The Bright Field" is apt: the poem demonstrates Dillard's thoughts in action, given the reactions it awakens in the reader (at least in this reader). You are correct about my familiarity with "The Bright Field": it is perhaps my favorite Thomas poem (and one of my favorite poems, period). It has appeared here on more than one occasion. I appreciate your sharing it at this time. I'm the same as you: I never tire of reading it. And it certainly is helpful in times such as these.

I thought that perhaps you were off on holiday, but it turns out you have been busy at work. I would have thought that summer was a slow period in your occupation, but that shows how little I know! But at least you have been able to spend time in your allotments. As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments, which provide a great deal to mull over. First, I like your movement from Hardy's "Afterwards" (one of my favorites by him) to Cavafy's "Ithaka" (I presume you are referring to that, but I could be wrong). I think this would be a fine epitaph to have when all is said and done: "He was a man who used to notice such things." Which fits well with "Ithaka": "Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,/you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean." (Translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)

As for Dickinson's poem: I was hoping that Brian's quoting of the Dickinson poem might prompt a response from you, given what you have taught me over the years about her work. I had to go scurrying around the internet to find out what "attar" was. Now I know, and it does help me in beginning (only beginning!) to understand what she is getting at. But I certainly see that the poem provides a fine complement to the poem posted by Brian. For instance: "Distills amazing sense/From ordinary meanings/And Attar so immense//From the familiar species/That perished by the Door." I confess that I get befuddled in the final two stanzas: I have only a vague inkling of what she is getting at. But I plan to give it further time and attention.

Finally: "Beauty and Truth" is definitely NOT, as you suggest, a "prating platitude." (And I would never think that of any of your thoughts!) But, if some think that it is, it is a platitude I am happy to embrace. Among other things, Beauty and Truth, Truth and Beauty, are exactly what evil and barbarism cannot touch.

Thank you very much for sharing your meditations on these matters. I always appreciate hearing from you.