Peace at Noon
Here there is peace, cool peace,
Upon these heights, beneath these trees;
Almost the peace of sleep or death,
To wearying brain, to labouring breath.
Here there is rest at last,
A sweet forgetting of the past;
There is no future here, nor aught
Save this soft healing pause of thought.
Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Leonard Smithers 1892).
An argument can be made that the cultivation of peace and quiet is a duty that we owe both to ourselves and to others. Why add to the cacophony?
"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness. Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."
George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Constable 1903), pages 13-14.
There is perhaps an echo of Pascal in Gissing's passage: "I have often said, that all the misfortune of men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their chamber." Blaise Pascal (translated by Joseph Walker), Pensées (1670).
Bertram Priestman, "Wooded Hillside" (1910)
"Every day the world grows noisier." True. Yet, as noisy (and noisome) as our current world may be, serenity is always available to us. The first step is to ignore the siren song of the 24/7/365 distraction industry, the empty world of "news," politics, and entertainment. Contrary to what the purveyors of distraction would have us believe, our lives can be lived perfectly well without them, thank you. The choice is ours.
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide. Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water's
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.
R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).
The closing lines of John Drinkwater's "The Wood" come to mind:
And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme,
Beating along my undiscovered mind.
The "theme" of which Drinkwater speaks has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of distraction. Rather, it belongs to the world of peace and quiet, the world of "the serene presence" that patiently waits for us to arrive.
Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)
I have no name for "the serene presence," but I sometimes experience a fleeting sense of it (a sense that glimmers and then vanishes) when I behold the World's beautiful particulars. Thomas's "the water's/quiet insistence on a time/older than man" hints at the nature of this abiding presence. But there is also an element of timelessness, of eternity in the present moment, involved.
Say, for instance, the timelessness of flowing water, ever-present and ever-departing. "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing/Through many places, as if it stood still in one." (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.") Ah, the urge to freeze the World in a state of permanent beauty! But that would be the death of beauty, wouldn't it?
Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,
Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,
Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;
It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Past caring, past knowing.
Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.
Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).
Thomas speaks of "the serene presence;" MacDonogh speaks of "the giver of quiet": there is always an urge to put a name on things, and these are lovely descriptions. But words are ultimately not sufficient. The "calm-flowing river" -- the wordless movement itself -- is what matters. It is there that serenity is found.
Bertram Priestman, "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)
There is an outer and an inner dimension to the peace and quiet that we seek. The goal, as Gissing suggests, is "life that is led in thoughtful stillness," a life in which we strive to "possess [our] souls in quiet." However, living in this manner does not entail an abandonment of the World. "But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin sound of birds. Several times lately I have lain wakeful when there sounded the first note of the earliest lark; it makes me almost glad of my restless nights." George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, page 72. These are "the lucidities of life/That are my daily beauty" that John Drinkwater speaks of in "The Wood."
I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.
T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918). The poem is untitled.
T'ao Ch'ien's poem is clear: tranquility is a matter of the heart, but it develops and unfolds within a concrete world of chrysanthemums, green summer hills, and birds flying home in pairs at dusk. It is telling that the line "I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge" has often been intentionally echoed in subsequent Chinese poems, as well as in Japanese haiku and waka: following T'ao Ch'ien, the poets remind us that the attainment of serenity takes place amidst the commonplace, beautiful particulars of the World.
In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
There is everything!
Sodō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.
Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)