Monday, January 9, 2017

Another Time

I have spent a fair portion of the new year in the 17th century.  My sojourn began when I returned to one of my favorite anthologies:  Norman Ault's Seventeenth Century Lyrics.  Browsing through it, I came upon this:

                  The Retreat

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A sev'ral sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
          Oh, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train;
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees;
But ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move;
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane Second Edition, 1950); originally published in Silex Scintillans, Part I (1650).

"Sev'ral" (line 18) means "individual," "different," or "separate and distinct."  Robert Herrick uses the word in this sense in his lovely two-line poem "Dreams":  "Here we are all, by day; by night we're hurl'd/By dreams, each one, into a sev'ral world."  "Stay" (line 27) means "delay" in this context.

"Bright shoots of everlastingness" is wonderful, and is not likely to be forgotten once encountered.  "A white, celestial thought" is lovely.  But I am also fond of:  "Some men a forward motion love,/But I by backward steps would move."  Wise counsel, I think.

Not surprisingly, "The Retreat" puts many in mind of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  For a time (particularly in the 19th century), it was believed that Wordsworth had been directly influenced by "The Retreat," as well as by other poems by Vaughan with a similar theme.  However, this conclusion is questionable. Still, even though there may not be a direct influence at work, the similarity of feeling and thought in the two poets is at times remarkable.  (For an interesting discussion of this topic, please see Helen McMaster, "Vaughan and Wordsworth," The Review of English Studies, Volume 11, Number 43 (1935), pages 313-325.)

Roland Pitchforth (1895-1982), "Bainbridge" (1928)

After reading "The Retreat," the following poem by Thomas Traherne, another 17th century poet, came to mind.  It has appeared here before, but it is always worth a revisit.

                       The Salutation

                    These little limbs,
          These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
          Where have ye been?  Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

                    When silent I
          So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
          How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

                    I that so long
          Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
          To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.

                    New burnished joys
          Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
          In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organizëd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.

                    From dust I rise,
          And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
          A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.

                    A stranger here
          Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
          Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).

In contrast with Vaughan's backward-glancing soul, Traherne's blithe soul is content -- nay, delighted -- to be abroad in the World.  But then, Traherne is writing from the perspective of childhood, in the absence of experience.  Traherne's use of "strange" (as well as of "stranger" and "strangest") in the final stanza is lovely.  I am reminded of Vaughan's quotation, in one of his prose works (a translation of Johannes Nierembergius), of an unnamed "divine":  "Excellent is that advice of the divine:  To live a stranger unto life."  Henry Vaughan, Flores Solitudinis (1654).

Reading "The Salutation" and "The Retreat," I am compelled to report, dear readers, that the 17th century is a nobler, more gracious and graceful, and altogether more civilized place than the world we inhabit today.  Yes, I know:  those moderns who believe in the gods of Progress, Science, and political and social utopianism will howl in disagreement.  They will say: "For  centuries, humanity has been ridding itself of its ignorant and superstitious ways.  We in the modern world have arrived at the apex of human progress and enlightenment."  Well, no.

Roland Pitchforth, "Hebden, Yorkshire"

At this point, with the soul's wayfaring under consideration, I can hear two of my beloved poets of the fin de siècle calling to me.  Hence, please bear with me as we spend a brief idyll (a wistful and melancholic idyll, I concede) in the 1890s.

                    The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
     A mist behind it and a mist before.
     It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
     It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
     It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
     It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
          Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
     Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
          It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (Macmillan 1889).

Yes, the poets of the Nineties had a different view of things than Vaughan, Traherne, and the other poets of the 17th century.  Although melancholy is not absent from 17th century poetry, the fin de siècle poets made an art of evoking and cataloguing it.  As I have stated here on more than one occasion, I am not ashamed to say that I am quite willing to surrender myself to them.

            Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                    vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The title of the poem is taken from Book I, Ode 1, of Horace's Odes.  It may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by  R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  

The correspondences between the two poems are wonderful.  Ah, the fate of the soul!  In Symons's view, "there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before," and, in time, "naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,/It staggers out into eternity."  ("Into the darker mist," mind you.)  Dowson takes (perhaps) a marginally more hopeful view of the soul's journey:  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

But, for all of the differences between Symons and Vaughan, Dowson and Traherne, we mustn't forget this:  for each of them the soul is real, and we owe it our attention.

Roland Pitchforth, "Burnsall" (1925)

In our time, the word "soul" is viewed in much the same way as the word "evil":  both words make most moderns nervous.  Not me.  This is one of the reasons why the 17th century seems congenial to me, as does the fin de siècle world of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  Vaughan, Traherne, Symons, and Dowson can speak of the soul without doubt and without irony.  Why should it be otherwise?

There was a time when a person could as a matter of course address his or her own soul.  This was not necessarily a product of religious fervor, nor was it a sign of madness.  It was simply the way of the world.

For instance, the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) did so in what is purported to be his death-bed poem, which begins with the phrase animula vagula blandula.  John Donne, another poet of the 17th century, translated the opening two lines of Hadrian's poem as follows:

My little wandering sportful soul,
Guest and companion of my body.

John Donne, in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Poems of John Donne (Lawrence and Bullen 1896).

Henry Vaughan translated the entire poem:

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The guest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor jests wilt thou afford me more.

Henry Vaughan, The Mount of Olives: Or, Solitary Devotions (1652).

We live in an age of technological miracles.  But a great deal of what it means to be human has gone missing.

Roland Pitchforth, "Cottage, Bainbridge" (1928)


sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for another exciting blog entry. It makes me long to turn back to thr 17th century; I have been sojourning much in the 19th. Yes, the soul must be considered. It is so easy to lose hold of, or to leave as if leaving an umbrella and neglecting to return to the lost and found shop of the consciousness. Thank you for giving me much to read and to think about.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. Well, the 19th century isn't such a bad place either. (Hence my mentioning of Symons and Dowson.) It's nice to be able to time travel, and to travel the world as well, in our minds. For instance, my post is about 17th century England (and Wales, where Vaughan was born), but 17th century Japan is also a fine place to dwell: it is the century of Bashō, who was nearly a contemporary of Vaughan and Traherne.

As ever, I appreciate your stopping by to share your thoughts.

George said...

There were places and times of the 17th Century that had a high standard of civilization. On the other hand, a look at C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War or at Simplicissimus will show what depths it could descend to.

J.V. Cunningham included a translation of Hadrian's epigram in his Collected Poems & Epigrams:

My little soul, my vagrant charmer,
The friend and house-guest of this matter,
Where will you now be visitor
In naked pallor, little soul,
And not so witty as were?

I notice also that the fifteenth and concluding piece of his sequence "To What Strangers, What Welcome", which begins

Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, ...

relates to the discussion.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

I have been reading your posts for the last few months (recommended by a likes minded friend) and wish to thank you for sharing the depth of your perception and rich knowledge of all manner of verse. The connection between Vaughn and Wordsworth seems to be tonal, more, perhaps, in subject than style. The Traherne is transcendent, the entire post another gem. Don

John Ashton said...


Life has its coincidences. Last week while browsing in in a local second hand book shop I came across a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch. I own an ex-library copy, but in truth it has seen better days, the copy I had found was in immaculate condition. Later that evening, browsing through the pages I came upon The Retreat by Henry Vaughan, and on reading it was reminded of another of his poems, “O Joys! Infinite sweetness! With what flowers and shoots of glory”. There is such beauty and wonder in those words. The same can of course be said of Traherne whose writings in poetry and prose never fail to delight and renew my own sense of wonder at the beauty of the world. Your post has prompted me to take my volume of Traherne from the bookshelf where it has lain unopened for far too long.
The seventeenth century has been a period of history that has long fascinated me, and in spite of the obvious problems that always confront us with any historical period, poverty, cruelty, injustice, there seemed a determined will to cultivate the nobler traits that are an essential part of a civilized way of living.
The modern world can be very arrogant in asserting its supposed superiority over the past. We may have left behind some superstitious ways, but the modern world is entangled in its own superstitions. We have lost much, and that has made life in the modern world less gentle, bedeviled as it is by restlessness and haste, a world where few have time or space to give the world the degree of attention that would benefit all.
This passage from the Third Century (46) of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations has long been a favourite;

When I came into the country, and being seated among silent trees, and meads and hills, had all my time in mine own hands, I resolved to spend it all, whatever it cost me, in the search of happiness, and to satiate that burning thirst which Nature had enkindled in me from my youth. In which I was so resolute, that I chose rather to live upon ten pounds a year, and to go in leather clothes, and feed upon bread and water, so that I might have all my time clearly to myself, than to keep many thousands per annum in an estate of life where my time would be devoured in care and labour. And God was so pleased to accept of that desire, that from that time to this, I have had all things plentifully provided for me, without any care at all, my very study of Felicity making me more to prosper, than all the care in the whole world. So that through His blessing I live a free and a kingly life as if the world were turned again into Eden, or much more, as it is at this day.

Thank you also for the Roland Pitchforth paintings , an artist wholly new to me.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for Cunningham's translation of Hadrian, which I hadn't seen before. I'm always on the look-out for translations of the poem. Thank you as well for Cunningham's two lines: I agree they are pertinent here.

As for the 17th century: I went through a period long ago in which (for some unknown reason) I was preoccupied with the Thirty Years' War. This included becoming acquainted with the engravings of Jacques Callot, which I'm sure you are familiar with. (A precursor of Goya, when it comes to depicting the horrors of war in engravings.) Hence, I harbor no illusions about that century. On the other hand, no century is exempt from the "depths," as you know. Thus, for instance (and I say this sadly, not glibly), the 17th century has nothing on the 20th and 21st centuries when it comes to descending to the depths.

On the other hand, that which is civilized and noble exists, and persists, in every century and in every location. The preservation of light has been, and always will be, a precarious thing. This is why some of us are still reading Vaughan and Traherne nearly 400 years later.

It is always a pleasure to hear your thoughts. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Don: Thank you very much. That's extremely kind of you to say. By the way, I am quite familiar with Issa's Untidy Hut, having come across it years ago. Although you have been visiting here for only a short time, you may have already noticed my love for haiku. When I first found your blog, I was delighted to discover that you shared my admiration for R. H. Blyth. Thus, I'm happy that circumstances have brought you here.

I agree with you completely about the Vaughan-Wordsworth connection being "tonal," and in the nature of subject matter, not style. As you know, an argument can be made that there is a similar connection between Traherne and Wordsworth, for Traherne was preoccupied with the child's entry into, and view of, the world. Of course, there is no possibility of any direct influence, since nearly all of Traherne's writings were not discovered until early in the 20th century. But the similarity in Traherne's and Wordsworth's preoccupations is at times striking.

I am delighted that you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thank you again for your kind words.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: That is a nice coincidence. And, coincidentally, I was browsing my own copy of Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse over the holidays. A well-worn companion.

Your thoughts on the 17th century and on our time are wonderful, and I completely concur. As you may notice, your ruminations parallel George's thoughts and my response. You make the point more articulately than I did about us always having to encounter "the obvious problems that always confront us with any historical period," and about our unfair and regrettable tendency to judge the past in terms of our own supposed superiority. I love your point that "the modern world is entangled in its own superstitions." As you know well, my view (repeated here no doubt ad nauseam) is that those modern superstitions include the gods of Progress, Science, and Utopianism. But I shouldn't beat that drum again!

Thank you for the reference to "shoots of glory" from the Vaughan poem, which is new to me. (My ignorance of his poetry is embarrassing. But better late than never.) And thank you indeed for the quotation from Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, which is wonderful. My ignorance of Traherne's poetry and prose is equally embarrassing, but I was recently reading parts of the Centuries from a copy on the Internet Archive and was entranced. I am quite fond of his concept of "Felicity."

Thank you again for those thoughts, and for sharing the Vaughan and Traherne. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,
Thank you very much for this most enlightening post.
I did not know the Vaughan poem and was immediately struck by the spiritual relation to Traherne and Wordsworth. These I know since my youth via the imaginative musical "translations" by Gerald Finzi. So it is his world which these words evoke to me. Finzi also set many Vaughan poems but not this one. He would have loved your post!
All best wishes for the coming year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: I'm delighted to hear from you again. Thank you for visiting.

I'm pleased you liked the post. As you have so often done in the past, you are continuing to educate me on the rich history of song settings of poems. Thank you very much! It is wonderful that Finzi did settings of poems by both Traherne and Vaughan. A little bit of internet research disclosed that his setting of Traherne's poems included "The Salutation." A nice coincidence. I was also interested to see that Finzi's settings of the poems are prefaced by passages from Centuries of Meditations. Lovely.

I completely agree with you about "the spiritual relation" between Vaughan, Traherne, and Wordsworth. It is very striking, I think. My research also disclosed that Finzi did a setting of "Ode: Intimations of Immortality": I was not surprised!

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again. I wish you all the best in the coming year as well. Please return soon.