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"


Mudpuddle said...

i greatly admire W.H. Davies; he tramped all over America and England, experiencing life as a hobo. his perambulations ended when he lost a foot by misjudging his leap into a freight car in Canada... his poetry is accessible and sensitive, particularly, as you say, when treating of the outdoors and the qualities of silence... i recommend his volumes of autobiography: "The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp", "Later Days", and "A Poet's Pilgrimage"...

Lee Hanson said...

The skein of geese and their impact. Reminded me of Neil M Gunn's novel Wild Geese Overhead. Well worth a read. Gunn's Geese cause a moment of epiphany for the protagonist, Will. No one reads Gunn these days but he was popular in his day.

Lovely blog as always. "What is this life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare..." I wonder if you have read Davies's Diary of a Supertramp. His experiences in the US make for interesting reading. A one time friend, perhaps an unlikely one, of Edward Thomas and the Dymock Poets - of whom Robert Frost was briefly a part of. I love literary connections

George said...

For most of history, it was the classes with leisure that participated in politics. Their success was not generally better than ours. This, I think was true in the general use of free time as well as in politics. I remember from Henry James's A Small Boy and Others that many of his relatives, freed from the need to work, seemed to find no better use for their leisure than to drink too much. And Mencken derisively wrote of the American millionaires as bringing their sons up to polo and polygamy.

Now, leisure in the sense understood by the rich of earlier times--months to cruise on the Nile or write a novel for minority tastes--is hard to come by. Yet Americans, except the ambitious at both ends of the economic scale, seem to me to have a lot of free time. Many do not seem to experience it as leisure, it is true, rather as time to be filled with distractions. About seventy-five years ago, in an essay on education, T.S. Eliot predicted this. As I recall, he didn't have a remedy to propose, and certainly I don't. Nor do I remember Pieper writing of the problem of those who trade leisure for distraction.

The models of leisure that interest me are not wholly about withdrawal from the world. Rather they regard leisure as necessary to contemplate and judge the world before returning to engagement with it. That engagement may be local and parochial, I agree, rather than on a national scale.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: I haven't yet read his autobiographies, but I have been meaning to. He did lead an interesting life. Thank you for the recommendations. His poetry is, I think, unjustly neglected.

Thank you very much for visiting again. Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: Thank you for the kind words about the post. I have come across Neil Gunn's name before, but I haven't read anything by him. (I'm afraid I'm not much of a fiction reader.) But now I am tempted to track down Wild Geese Overhead -- a lovely title.

As I mentioned in my response to Mudpuddle, I haven't yet read any of Davies's autobiographical writings; I ought to do so. He did have a touching relationship with Edward Thomas. As I'm sure you know, Thomas was a great supporter of Davies's poetry when he was trying to get started, and helped Davies out financially even though (again, as I'm sure you know) Thomas had his own financial difficulties. In his biography of Thomas, R. George Thomas recounts an incident in which Thomas raised money among his friends to buy a new wooden leg for Davies, whose prosthetic leg had been broken. The replacement was made by a local craftsman, "who believed it to be a 'curiosity cricket bat'." R. George Thomas, Edward Thomas: A Portrait (Oxford University Press 1987), page 129.

I'm sure you are familiar with Davies's elegy for Thomas: "Killed in Action." I particularly like the second stanza:

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for those thought-provoking observations. I agree that there is "leisure" as Pieper conceives it, and there is is the popular culture conception of "leisure" as free time spent in distractions. And, as Mr. Hanson reminds us in his quoting of the opening stanza of Davies's "Leisure," there is this: "What is this life if, full of care/We have no time to stand and stare."

I agree that the type of leisure contemplated by Pieper (and by others, stretching back to ancient China and ancient Greece) is a way of being that does not necessarily involve, as you say, "withdrawal from the world." Eremitism is not a prerequisite to a state of leisure. Nor are "free time" and "financial independence." But I have to think a bit about your suggestion that leisure is "necessary to contemplate and judge the world before returning to engagement with it." I would see the state of leisure as a constant way of being, not simply a respite or interval before "returning to engagement with [the world]." Of course, the word "engagement" is subject to various interpretations. I tend to view it very narrowly, as you might expect.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. Happy Thanksgiving!

GretchenJoanna said...

I just happened on your blog while looking for a poem by Walter de la Mare, and what a storehouse of beautiful meditations you share here. This one post includes several poems I didn't know, on a theme that I return to again and again in my life.

Did you read Amy Lowell's thoughts/poem on leisure? I haven't read Pieper's book on the subject yet but the title alone has been valuable to me! I love Lowell's associated word "vigor." Nothing lazy about that!


Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.

–Amy Lowell

Stephen Pentz said...

GretchenJoanna: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you as well for sharing the poem by Lowell, which is new to me. (My only contact with her work is through some translations she did of Chinese poetry.) The poem fits in well with the other poems in the post. I particularly like: "The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time." Think how much more "over-busy" our world has become since Lowell wrote this poem!

I'm pleased you found your way here. I hope you'll return soon.