Thursday, October 6, 2016


A few posts ago, I considered Matthew Arnold's use of the "Sea of Life" metaphor in his poetry.  Recently, however, my thoughts have turned to a more homely image of life:  a boat adrift on calm waters.  I have in mind a wooden rowboat.  Or perhaps, even though I am not a sailor, a small wooden sailboat.

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

I prefer this image to that of a three-masted Ship of Life, under full sail, cleaving the stormy waves of Time, et cetera.  We all know the inevitable end of such a journey:  "As a rule, everyone ultimately reaches port with masts and rigging gone."  (Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press 1974; originally published in 1851), page 284.)  An oceanic circumnavigation is far too dramatic.  I fancy this instead:  "a boat amid the ripples, drifting, rocking."  (Christina Rossetti, "Pastime.")

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "In Mevagissey Harbour, Cornwall"

Sami Mansei's boat is "rowing out at break of day," bound for a preordained end.  But it is in no hurry, and the scene is suffused with tranquility.  There is a great deal to be said for idle drifting, with a bit of occasional rowing. We will arrive when we arrive.

"These men you wander around with -- none will give you any good advice. All they have are petty words, the kind that poison a man.  No one understands, no one comprehends -- so who can give any help to anyone else?  The clever man wears himself out, the wise man worries.  But the man of no ability has nothing he seeks.  He eats his fill and wanders idly about.  Drifting like an unmoored boat, emptily and idly he wanders along."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia University Press 1968), page 354.

Be assured:  Chuang Tzu is advising us that "the man of no ability" who "emptily and idly . . . wanders along" -- "drifting like an unmoored boat" -- deserves our approbation, not our condemnation.  "The clever man" and "the wise man" have both got it all wrong.


Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake
Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.
The boat itself stirs only when I break
This drowse of heat and solitude afloat
To prove if what I see be bird or mote,
Or learn if yet the shore woods be awake.

Long hours since dawn grew, -- spread, -- and passed on high
And deep below, -- I have watched the cool reeds hung
Over images more cool in imaged sky:
Nothing there was worth thinking of so long;
All that the ring-doves say, far leaves among,
Brims my mind with content thus still to lie.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).  Thomas wrote the poem in May of 1915.  Ibid, page 235.

China in the 4th century B. C., England in 1915, or now:  there is no difference.

Walter Goodin, "Bridlington Harbour, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1951)

Chuang Tzu is correct:  why aspire to be clever or wise?  (Besides, who in their right mind would, or could, claim to be clever or wise?)  If it is serenity and contentment that we seek (I see no reason to grasp after "happiness," whatever that may be), idle drifting seems to be the proper course of action. But one mustn't equate idleness with sloth, disinterest, or ennui:  it is an active state of being that requires attention, patience, receptivity, and humility.  One never knows when a message may arrive.

"Lessons from the world around us:  certain localities, certain moments 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats.  An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait'.  But is there still the time, the patience to wait?  And is 'waiting' really the right word?"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)

Given the distractions of the modern world, Jaccottet asks a valid question: "But is there still the time, the patience to wait?"  Popular culture, the media, and technology all urge us to pursue ephemeral chimeras at ever-increasing speeds.  But each of us has it in us to step into a drifting boat at any moment and to say good-bye to all that (to borrow from Robert Graves). In my experience, this becomes easier as one ages.


When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;

When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;

-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.

Vita Sackville-West, Orchard and Vineyard (John Lane 1921).

"Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth."  Well, I doubt that "old age" in itself leads us to the discovery of "the riding-light of truth" (intimations or glimpses of Truth perhaps -- if we pay attention and are lucky).  But, as for "gracious in retreat":  that is a laudable goal, and one that may be attainable as long as we keep our wits about us.

Frank Jowett, "A Sunlight Harbour"

As one who has no wisdom, and who knows nothing, my musings on being able to idly drift on calm waters are purely aspirational.  There may be moments (mere instants) when such a life seems within reach.  They immediately vanish.

Yet, we wouldn't wish it otherwise, would we?

                 Old Crofter

The gate he built last year
hangs by its elbow from the wall.
The oar he shaped this summer
goes through the water with a swirl, a swivel.

The hammer in his great hand
pecks like fowl in the grain.
His haycocks are lopsided.
His lamp stands on the dresser, unlit.

One day the rope he has tied
will slither down the rock
and the boat drift off idly
dwindling away into the Atlantic.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)


asquith said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Beautiful! Simply beautiful. I love your wide-ranging knowledge of poetry.

Fred said...


A beautiful essay. I prefer the imagery of the small boat since, as many wiser than I have already pointed out, we come into this world alone and we leave the same way.

I think the poem by Norman MacCraig is especially apt in that we build our own lives out of the materials available. Flaws there are, but still it's our own.

Mudpuddle said...

chuang tzu expressed it as well as any; moments of stillness like footsteps in the dust describe the world beyond any words created by the industrious searcher... or ripples in the tide... brilliant post; "a finger pointing to the moon..". many tx...

Rose said...

I don't know where you find all these exquisite poems and paintings, but I sure do like them.

This is a favourite of mine, along similar themes to the ones in your post.

Written to the Tune
"The Fisherman's Honor"

The sky becomes one with its clouds
the waves with their mist.
In Heaven's starry river, a thousand sails dance.
As if dreaming, I return to the place
where the Highest lives,
and hear a voice from the heavens:
Where am I going?
I answer, "The road is long,"
and sigh; soon the sun will be setting.
Hard to find words in poems to carry amazement:
on its ninety-thousand-mile wind,
the huge inner bird is soaring.
O wind, do not stop--
My little boat of raspberry wood
has not yet reached the Immortal Islands.

Li Ch'ing-chao 1084-1151 China

Jane the Booklady said...

Yet again, I have read your post and found myself eagerly saving the poems. Another Edward Thomas, what joy- and one I hadn't read. But today, my particular happiness is your first short poem. I am writing a funeral ceremony for an old lady about whom almost nothing is known and this will be a perfect start. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

asquith: Thank you for stopping by again. And thank you for the link: both the song and the performer are new to me. The song fits well with the theme of the post. For those of you who are not able to click on the link (Blogger makes this difficult), the link is to a song titled "Adrift" by Wino (Scott Weinrich).

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. I wouldn't claim to have a "wide-ranging knowledge of poetry," however! (Although I certainly appreciate the compliment, and thank you for it.) I've probably read about 1% of the poems I wish I had read. At this point in my life, I fear that I am revisiting old favorites much of the time, although I am still exploring (slowly!).

It's good to hear from you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. I agree with you about MacCaig's poem: it's quite touching, of course, but it also shows the dignity of human existence, with a reminder of where we are all bound for.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the post. Chuang Tzu can often be mystifying, but there is a great deal of wisdom contained in his words, if one is patient. Yes, all of this is indeed "a finger pointing at the moon." We need to remember that.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Rose: Thank you for the kind words, which I greatly appreciate. And thank you for sharing the lovely poem by Li Ch'ing-chao, which is new to me. I agree that it fits well here. I particularly like: "In Heaven's starry river, a thousand sails dance."

Here are the final two stanzas of another poem by her (which you likely know), which also goes well here (the translation is by Sam Hamill and appears in his Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese):

I've heard it's always spring
at Wu Ling, and beautiful.
I'd take a little boat and drift
alone out on the water.

But I'm afraid a boat
so small would swamp
with the weight
of all my sorrows.

As I'm sure you're aware, traditional Chinese poetry is filled with images of boats, particularly solitary boats. I had thought to include a few in this post, but I have decided to include them in a future post (or posts) devoted solely to Chinese boat poems.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jane the Booklady: Thank you very much. I'm happy you liked the poems. It's lovely that you may be able to use Sami Mansei's poem in such a fashion. It is a beautiful poem.

Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I love rereading and returned to your blog to reread this excellent post. I had been thinking of small boats poems since I first read your post and thinking of the aptness of the general metaphor of the small boat and its application to many situations and images in life. I've thought of Lewis Carroll's "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," for example and some of the paintings by Turner in which the boats appear miniature in contrast with the sea and sky.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts. And thank you as well for the reference to "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," which is new to me. I found it on the internet. "Ever drifting down the stream --/Lingering in the golden gleam --/Life, what is it but a dream?" A great number of boat poems have a dreamlike quality to them. Carroll's poem is an excellent complement to Sami Mansei's poem, I think. Yes, Turner's paintings (both oils and watercolors) of seas, rivers, and boats are wonderful, aren't they?

Thanks for stopping by again.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, This morning I stopped by and read your latest post as I frequently do and was delighted as always to find both the familiar and the completely new, and comments interesting and thought provoking.
Unfortunately I am still rather unwell. The doctors seem unable to find out what exactly has caused my illness or how best to treat it.I am considerably better than I was,and although not fully recovered.I have been able to return to work on a part-time basis after a two month absence which is I think a positive sign.
I just wanted to say that although I may not have been posting any comments I do read your blog regularly and always find the excellent mix of poetry,image and comment make for wonderful and happy moments in my day.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I am very happy to hear from you, but I am concerned about your illness. Having not heard from you recently, I presumed things were busy for you at work -- so I am very sorry to hear that you have been ill. But I am encouraged to learn that you are feeling better. I hope that the doctors will be able to track down the source of this, and that your health will continue to improve.

You will be in my thoughts. I greatly value your long-term presence here, and I hope you will still be able to drop by to read the posts. Please take care.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to wish Mr. Ashton well. He has expressed exactly how I feel about your blog. In fact, recently with the times seeming particularly stressful, I almost always end my time on the internet for the day with First Known When Lost. It's a wonderful way to step down from the temporal & step up to the most important things.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm certain Mr. Ashton will appreciate your kind thoughts. That's very nice of you. Although those of us who exchange thoughts here have never met each other in person, this is a real form of communication, and presences can be felt.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. It's gratifying (and humbling) to know that what appears here plays that sort of role -- bearing in mind that the poets and the artists do all of the work, while I am merely the messenger.

I hope you are enjoying lovely autumn weather. Not so here at the moment: as I am writing this, we are about to enter into a wind storm. I hope we don't lose all our leaves!

As always, thank you for visiting.

PaulK said...

I love this website and everything it stands for. In the midst of so much hustle, bustle, and tastelessness, of modern life, it would be of incalculable benefit to many if they, like me, found time occasionally to browse and reflect upon the contents. The sensitive choice of poems and paintings invariably compel me to slow down and reflect upon the essence of things, the things one often takes for granted - and yet there they are, available to all - the peace, beauty, and nobility of nature, life, and art.
Thank you Stephen.

Stephen Pentz said...

PaulK: Thank you very much. That is extremely kind of you to say. The poems and paintings that I post here all resonate with me, and it is my hope that they may resonate with others as well. Thus, it is gratifying (and humbling) to receive a comment such as yours, and it encourages me in what I am trying to do. (There is always the feeling that these things are simply disappearing into the air.) I am very fortunate (and ever grateful) to find readers such as you.

I greatly appreciate your kind thoughts and words. Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.