'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23.'
The little meadow by the sand,
Where Tamsin lies, is ringed about
With acres of the scented thyme.
The salt wind blows in all that land;
The great clouds pace across the skies;
Rare wanderers from the ferry climb.
One might sleep well enough, no doubt,
Where Tamsin lies.
Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,
And all in life she might not have,
The silence and the utter peace
That tempest-winnowed spirits find
On slopes that front the western wave.
The white gulls circle without cease
O'er Tamsin's grave.
E. K. Chambers, Carmina Argentea (1918).
I suspect that many moderns will find the poem to be too old-fashioned and too sentimental, too unironic, for their tastes. Not I. As I have noted here in the past, I consider sentimentality to be a perfectly acceptable human emotion. Further, I am firmly in favor of anything that is deemed to be "old-fashioned." Moreover, I believe that self-regarding, soulless irony is the bane of our times. In short, I do not consider myself to be a "modern."
I find the poem to be absolutely beautiful.
Ernest Ehlers, "Sea Pinks, Porth Joke, Cornwall, May 1898" (1898)
Edmund Kerchever Chambers (1866-1954) was a civil servant in what was then known as the Board of Education. In addition (and on the side), he was a leading scholar of English literature and, in particular, of the English theatre. His most important works were The Mediaeval Stage (two volumes) and The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes). He also prepared updated editions of several of Shakespeare's plays, the poems of John Donne, and the poems of Henry Vaughan.
In January, I posted two poems by Vaughan. To confirm the text, I consulted Chambers's edition of Vaughan's poems on the Internet Archive. In doing so, I noticed a link to a book by Chambers titled Carmina Argentea. I was not familiar with the book, so I opened the link. I discovered a 32-page pamphlet that was, according to the title page, "Printed for the Author" in 1918. The pamphlet contains poems written by Chambers. He likely distributed copies of the pamphlet to his family and friends.
An "Envoi" at the start of the collection provides context. It begins: "A sorry sheaf of verse to bring/For fifty years of wayfaring/About the waste fields and the sown,/Where harvest of the Muse is grown!" The "Envoi" concludes: ". . . let them rest,/Poor relics of a broken quest." In the United Kingdom of Chambers's time, literate men and women were wont to turn their hand to verse when sufficiently moved, even if the writing of poetry was not their primary vocation. Carmina Argentea ("Silver Poems" or "Silver Songs") preserves twenty-one poems written by Chambers over "fifty years of wayfaring."
I began to read the poems. They consisted of reflections on the city and the country, nature and the turn of the seasons, love and life. All pleasant enough. However, everything suddenly changed when I arrived at page 22, where I came upon 'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth.' As I read the poem, I immediately realized that this was something of an entirely different order. How did I know? As in all such cases, the signs of being in the presence of beauty were physical and emotional: a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in my chair, and, as the poem came to an end, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight (together with, I confess, misty eyes and a lump in the throat).
Robert Borlase Smart, "Cornish Cliffs, Zennor" (1923)
Of course, I was curious about Thomasine Trenoweth, and how she came into the life of E. K. Chambers. My internet researches led me nowhere. I did discover that the poem was given the title "Lelant" (with "In Memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23" appearing under the title) when it was republished in 1922 in the anthology Poems of To-Day: Second Series. Lelant is a village in Cornwall on the Hayle Estuary, a few miles southeast of St Ives. However, I could find nothing about Chambers's connection with Lelant in particular, or with Cornwall in general: he was born in Berkshire, attended Oxford, spent his working life in London, and retired to a village in Oxfordshire. Cornish locations are mentioned in three other poems collected in Carmina Argentea. Perhaps Chambers took his holidays in Cornwall?
But I have decided that it is best to leave Thomasine Trenoweth a mystery. Chambers's affectionate shortening of her name to "Tamsin" from "Thomasine" tells us something about her. As does: "Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,/And all in life she might not have." And there is this as well: "The silence and the utter peace/That tempest-winnowed spirits find/On slopes that front the western wave." She was a person who once walked through the World. Her departure was an occasion of sadness. But she was not forgotten.
The following haiku by Bashō appeared here earlier this year, and it comes to mind again.
At the news of the nun Jutei's death
never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls
Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 393.
Byron Cooper (1850-1933)
"Hayle Estuary, Cornwall (The Shadow of a Cloud)"
In my previous post, I repeated one of my poetic precepts (for which I claim no originality): "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet." Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth is a perfect instance of what I had in mind. In his day, no one thought of Chambers as a poet. Yet he was moved by his feelings to preserve in a poem the memory of someone he affectionately referred to as "Tamsin," and to wish her a peaceful sleep. "Parta Quies."
The poem saw the light of day in 1918, surfaced again in 1922, and then essentially disappeared. But the poem -- and Tamsin -- have been there all along. They now return in a new century. This tells us something about the wondrous and patiently circuitous workings of life, art, and the World.
We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.
Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.
Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"