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)


Fred said...


Thanks for posting the two Hardy poems which I've never seen before. Both illustrate the Ecclesiastes theme that Earth alone abides.

Stephen Pentz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You're welcome. I'm pleased you liked the Hardy poems. "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" is my favorite of his autumn poems (and one of my favorites of his in general).

Thank you for the reference to Ecclesiastes. I think that "the earth abides" and Hardy's "Earth never grieves" complement each other well.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you have been able to get out to see the aspens this autumn.

George said...

The post sent me to the household Shakespeare to look up "When I do count the clock that tells the time" (sonnet 12) and "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" (73). They look a bit like academic exercises to me, but if you want time and the cycles of life--youth, maturity, begetting, decline--they certainly consider both.

Clocks have been around for quite a while. I have been re-reading Plato's (or Socrates's) Apology, and it alludes in passing to the clock that regulated the length of speeches in the courts. The New York Times recently reviewed an exhibition at New York University on "Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity" ( The Middle Ages put a certain amount of thought into timekeeping, but less with a view to navigation or other material uses, but rather for scheduling prayers.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for all of these references. I wish I was more knowledgeable about Shakespeare's work: I'm certain, from the little I know, that he must be a wonderful source for apostrophes on time.

I appreciate the reminders of the ancient sources of timekeeping and clocks. As you know, I am quite fond of traditional Chinese poetry, in which references to water clocks are not uncommon. Your mentioning of the Middle Ages, in conjunction with my reference to the sounding of bells, brings to mind this lovely passage from Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages (translated by Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch):

"But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation."

As ever, thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

bruce floyd said...

The below poem by Dickinson deftly limns the role of the great poet. Certainly, Hardy was a poet who could "[Distill] amazing sense / From ordinary meanings--- / From ordinary meanings." (see his poem "Afterwards") Dickinson says that the poet is he (or her) who can obviate time, sequester if for a period. Great poetry contains no metronome beating out time, no sand running through a glass. In thrall to a poem, a reader forgets to take a look at the watch on the wrist, the big clock on the mantel over the fireplace. A great poem is not only "a momentary stay against confusion," it is also a moment when time stands still, and all that exists (or seems to) is the present Great poetry is forever present, devoid of the temporal. it's true of course, as Shakespeare says in several of his greatest sonnets, that the poet must die but the poet's words live on. Such reasoning might be casuistry, the legerdemain of sophistry; I don't know. As you note about our comfort that the splendor of bedizened autumn will come regularly long after we are dust, is it not comforting too to think the poetry that seized us and revealed the wonder of the simple word to us will still enthrall those who will come generations after we are ashes in the dark earth?

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 --

John Ashton said...


Working at my allotments over the weekend I was all too aware of the passing of time, and yes, I feel there is a very real exhilaration at this time of year. Being outside, watching the trees in the park, bordering our allotment loose shoals of yellow leaves onto the damp, dark earth; almost giving a bright colouring to the sadly blighted marigolds and nasturtiums that have fallen in the midst of their late flowering to last week's frosts.

Growing things die down into the earth to replenish it, the earth is revivified. I planted bulbs yesterday for next Spring, and hopefully from the cease of this season's blooms another flowering will come.

When at my allotments, where time really does seem to move at a different pace I muse on how the world was when clocks and schedules were not quite so omnipresent, and much of life moved according to other measures. Whatever tasks I have to take care of do not seem to place demands upon me in the same way as those at home or work.

In the meantime, as you say the present moment is all that each of us ever has and to pay attention to what is now and notice what we can see of the world, revealed at this time of year closer to its bones is to see anew. As you remind me in your comment about the gift of puddles.

Thank you for Hardy's The upper birch leaves, a poem I'm not familiar with. I never cease to be astonished by coming upon another Hardy poem I don't know. How have I missed it?
Autumn in King's Hintock Park is undoubtedly one of my favourite Hardy poems.
Thank you for another delightful post

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you very much for your meditation on time, and for the poem by Dickinson, which is a fine complement to the post. As usual (me being slow-witted), parts of the poem are beyond my ken, but, overall, I think I have a sense of it. For instance, I had to look up "attar," and, having done so, the lines "And Attar so immense//From the familiar species/That perished by the Door" disclosed their beauty.

I completely agree with your thought that it is comforting to think that certain poems that speak to us will continue to speak to others in the future. As you know, I am highly skeptical of those who are constantly bewailing what they feel to be the distressed state of poetry in particular and of "literary culture" in general in our times. I'm not at all sympathetic to the "sky is falling" mentality.

Like all else in life, what matters is the actions of individual people. The great poems of the past are in no danger of disappearing as long as we as individuals continue to read them. Over the past weekend, I read a few poems from the Chinese T'ang Dynasty and some haiku from 17th century Japan. They are in no danger of vanishing. Nor are the human truths they embody.

Thus, Dickinson's final lines are perfect: "a Fortune --/Exterior -- to Time." Exactly.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your thoughts on autumn in your allotments, and the turning (and returning) of the seasons. Your remark about the "bright colouring" of the "shoals of yellow leaves" on the dark ground particularly resonated with me: as I walked down a dim path last week, I noticed the bright carpet of fallen yellow and orange leaves at my feet, and I had the feeling that the sun's summer light had made its way to the ground.

I'm pleased to hear that "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" is a favorite of yours as well. And I'm happy to have introduced "The Upper Birch-Leaves" to you. As we have discussed in the past, one of the joys of reading Hardy's poetry is that, given the large number of poems that he wrote, one constantly comes upon new discoveries.

Thank you for stopping by again. I hope that your health is continuing to improve.

Lee Hanson said...

Wonderful blog. Loved the Hardy. One can see how he influenced Robert Frost. You can trace Frost's Gathering Leaves to Upper Birch Leaves: 'GATHERING LEAVES
Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.
I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away..."

The discussion of time and its impact made me think of JB Priestley and his fine play, Time and the Conways. This comes from the play, spoken by Alan, 'But the point is, now, at this moment, or any moment, we're only cross-sections of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us - the real you, the real me. And then perhaps we'll find ourselves in another time, which is only another kind of dream.'

You should read the play. Priestley was haunted by time and its effect. Johnson Over Jordan, a highly experimental play sees him taking his protagonist out of time altogether and inhabiting all his selves at once. Fascinating.

Best wishes. Keep on writing.

Lee Hanson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

Thank you for suggesting the echo of Hardy in Frost. I've sometimes wondered about what Frost thought of Hardy's poetry. I've come across a few brief remarks made by Frost over the years (that he considered Hardy to be a fine poet, etc.) but nothing substantial. Given that Edward Thomas thought highly of Hardy's poetry, I've tended to presume that Frost felt the same. It is nice to be reminded of "Gathering Leaves." Which reminds me that I have not yet visited Frost's poetry this autumn -- something that I try to do each year.

And thank you as well for the passage from Priestley's play, which is wonderful, and which fits perfectly in this context. I'm embarrassed to say that, although I have heard of Priestley, I am ignorant of his work. I did a bit of research after reading your comment and discovered that he wrote a series of plays that have some aspect of time as their central concern. Time and the Conways does sound interesting. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Thank you for visiting. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Lee Hanson said...

It's a pleasure. If I ever get time to write a blog yours would be the model. It really is something I look forward to. A meeting of perspective, art and poetry: what's not to like?

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. I greatly appreciate your presence here.