Tuesday, November 22, 2016


This week, I returned to the following poem:

            From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

What led me back to the poem?  I suspect that I needed relief from the overwrought reaction (in some quarters) to the presidential election.  There are those who believe the End of the World is at hand.  Of course, if the other candidate had been elected, there would have been an overwrought reaction (in some quarters) from those on the other side, some of whom would have believed the End of the World was at hand.

I can see why the elderly gentleman in Coleridge's poem beckoned to me.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Alternatively, I may have been subconsciously called back to the poem by this, which I had come across a day or so earlier:

"Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean 'dumbness' or 'noiselessness'; it means more nearly that the soul's power to 'answer' to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947.

Can one maintain "a receptive attitude of mind" if one's life is bound up with politics?  I have my doubts.  The reprehensible stereotyping engaged in, and the bigotry and sense of superiority displayed by, those on the losing end of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election demonstrate how a preoccupation with politics can destroy one's sense of fellow feeling and humanity.  But I will leave that topic alone, having visited it in my previous post.

As for silence:  the culture of politics is nothing if not noisy, isn't it?  "Those who do not remain silent do not hear."  Yes, exactly.

     How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, The Collected Poems of W. H. Davies (Jonathan Cape 1942).

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Yesterday evening I was walking south beside a meadow as the sun neared the ridgeline of the Olympic Mountains.  In a few minutes it would vanish.  The sky overhead and to the west was clear, but grey-purple clouds, shot through with orange and pink, lay along the horizons to the south, east, and north.  The deep-blue waters of Puget Sound were darkening.

I noticed a wordless calling sound -- a bleat of sorts -- coming from behind me, up in the sky.  It grew louder.  I soon realized that the sound was the honking of a flock of geese.  I stopped and waited for them.  They passed directly overhead -- three or four dozen Canadian geese in a ragged, shifting V-formation, all of them honking.

I have been hearing that sound for more than half a century.  Autumn is not autumn without it.  Continuity and certainty within ceaseless change.

                    Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 336.

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

I will always prefer wild geese to politicians ("a list of names").  But I shan't attempt to impose this preference on others.  For me, politics is the destroyer of repose, reflection, and tranquility.  I understand that others may feel differently.  So it goes in this "vale of Soul-making."

"[T]here is also a certain serenity in leisure.  That serenity springs precisely from our inability to understand, from our recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe; it springs from the courage of deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru), page 47.

I am not fond of the assumption of certainty that accompanies political discourse.  So many utopian master plans!  All of them based upon classes, categories, and caricatures.  All of them chimerical.  All of them leaving individual human beings and individual human souls out of account.

                      A Recluse

Here lies (where all at peace may be)
A lover of mere privacy.
Graces and gifts were his; now none
Will keep him from oblivion;
How well they served his hidden ends
Ask those who knew him best, his friends.

He is dead; but even among the quick
This world was never his candlestick.
He envied none; he was content
With self-inflicted banishment.
'Let your light shine!' was never his way:
What then remains but, Welladay!

And yet his very silence proved
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
Finds its reflection everywhere.

Life's tempests must have waxed and waned:
The deep beneath at peace remained.
Full tides that silent well may be
Mark of no less profound a sea.
Age proved his blessing.  It had given
The all that earth implies of heaven;
And found an old man reconciled
To die, as he had lived, a child.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

With respect to the final two lines of the poem, it is important to remember that de la Mare considered childhood to be a charmed and magical time, the loss of which is to be regretted.

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

Friday, November 11, 2016


As I mentioned in a recent post, I did my best to completely ignore the presidential election.  I also chose not to vote in it:  I do not consider it my civic duty to cast a vote for the least unappealing candidate in a given election.  So I sat this one out.

However, I have been paying attention to the reactions of those who are not happy with the result of the election.  Their reactions are remarkably similar to the reactions of those who were not happy with the Brexit vote.  I expressed my feelings on this subject in a post I made on June 29 titled "Humanity."  Please bear with me, dear readers, but I feel compelled to restate those feelings at this time by reposting some of my thoughts:

"What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

"Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political 'activists,' and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be: political animals."

"Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

"All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul."

Thus concludes the homily for the day (and my unseemly quoting of myself, for which I apologize).

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Make no mistake:  each of us is standing there on the sand.  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

On the morning after Election Day, I stepped out into the garden.  Birds were chirping.  Squirrels were busy gathering seeds and nuts for the coming winter.  The World was still here.  My beautiful and wonderful country was still here.  Nothing had changed.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 413.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"

Friday, November 4, 2016

Leaves And Clocks

The wistful exhilaration of autumn is all about the passage of time, isn't it? Yes, I realize that I am stating the obvious.  Moreover, you may well say: "But isn't everything about the passage of time?"  You will get no argument from me.

Wistful exhilaration ought to be something we feel every day -- every moment, as a matter of fact.  Consider this:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave." Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1701).  This bit of advice is not morbid, nor is it intended to engender panic or a sense of impending doom.  And it is not a recommendation to embark upon a course of carpe diem hedonism. Rather, it is an instance of practical and ethical Stoic wisdom:  the present moment is all that each of us ever has; how do we intend to act?

The awareness of time passed and of time passing is present, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every poem that Thomas Hardy wrote.  As one might expect, this is particularly true of those poems of his which are set in autumn.

   The Upper Birch-Leaves

Warm yellowy-green
In the blue serene,
How they skip and sway
On this autumn day!
They cannot know
What has happened below, --
That their boughs down there
Are already quite bare,
That their own will be
When a week has passed, --
For they jig as in glee
To this very last.

But no; there lies
At times in their tune
A note that cries
What at first I fear
I did not hear:
"O we remember
At each wind's hollo --
Though life holds yet --
We go hence soon,
For 'tis November;
-- But that you follow
You may forget!"

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

"But that you follow/You may forget!"  Hardy and Marcus Aurelius are of the same mind.  Yet, we mustn't go through life thinking of time as the ticking of a clock.  Life went on perfectly well for millennia in the absence of clocks.  The earth's "diurnal course" and its seasonal round sufficed. Eventually, bells began sounding from steeples and towers.  Music in the air.  Perhaps we should have left it at that.


We had the sun, stars, shadows.
In Greta's house, a box
Of numbers and wheels
And cleek-cleek, click-clock, that insect
Eating time at the wall.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

"Anyway, the thing about progress is that it looks much greater than it really is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein chose this as the "motto" for Philosophical Investigations.  (The sentence appears in a play written by Johann Nestroy (1801-1862).  A discussion of Wittgenstein's use of the quotation may be found in David Stern, "Nestroy, Augustine, and the Opening of the Philosophical Investigations," in Rudolf Haller and Klaus Puhl (editors), Wittgenstein and the Future of Philosophy: A Reassessment After 50 Years (2002).)

In his own words, Wittgenstein says this about progress:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features."  Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by Peter Winch), Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press 1980), page 7.

So, yes, clocks represent "progress."  Of a sort.  I am haunted by thoughts of "time-saving devices" and of "multitasking."  Progress?

                             Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

Yesterday afternoon, in the declining sunlight, I walked to the north beside a row of big-leaf maples, now emptied of leaves.  Each day the sun is setting further and further into the southwest.  The shadows of the bare branches of the maples stretched 50 yards or so to the northeast across a green expanse of grass.  The yellow, orange, and brown leaves that had departed from the maples were strewn across the sward.

The shadows of the empty branches were covered with fallen leaves.  One could imagine that the leaves had been reunited with the trees.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

"Earth never grieves!"  This is a cry of joy, not of despair.  Hence:  "New leaves will dance on high."  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go long after each of us has turned to dust can be a comforting one -- a source of serenity.

James McIntosh Patrick, "White Poplar, Carse of Gowrie"

In this part of the world, we received a record amount of rainfall in October. It was a month of puddles.  On those days when the sun briefly emerged, the puddles were a wonderful gift.  Fallen leaves floated on the still water. The endless blue sky and the empty branches of trees filled the spaces between the drifting leaves.  There it lay:  the entire World.

     It is deep midnight:
The River of Heaven
     Has changed its place.

Ransetsu (1653-1707) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 366.  "The River of Heaven" (ama-no-gawa) is the beautiful Japanese name for what we, in English, call "the Milky Way."

The River of Heaven turns above us.  Leaves fall at our feet.  Everything is in its place.  The World is perfect just as it is.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 413.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)