Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peace And Quiet

"All I want is a little peace and quiet."  A plaint from time immemorial.  We mustn't make the mistake of believing that our particular moment in time is unique in its clamor, chaos, harriedness, and horrors.  It has always been thus in the distracted world of human beings ("distracted from distraction by distraction"), and will forever be thus.  No wonder we long for tranquility and silence.

                 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
beside it.
                 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?

           The River

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,
Unhurrying still
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)


Ultra Monk said...

Thank you so much for today's blog. I am at work and I really needed to be reminded of that silence at the moment.

Fred said...

A beautiful post. I think silence may be frightening to many, though. I don't understand why. Here is a favorite of mine:

None broke the silence. . .
Nor visitor nor host. . . nor
White chrysanthemum
-- Ryota --

Anonymous said...

I doubt the "peace and quiet" you mention in your splendid blog--good Lord it is time for some wise words in this gaudy and noisy culture of ours--is meant to refer to the quiet that accompanies intense awe, but I've always thought that one of the quietness moments in literature, when one can imagine complete silence, maybe the sigh of the falling sea upon the shore, perhaps a breeze in the trees or the cry of bird on the wing, is that moment when "Stout Cortez" and "all his men / Looked at each other with a wild surmise-- / Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

And of course Hamlet's last words are, "The rest is silence."

I told my wife just last night that I feel I lost a chance and quiet and peace because I never had any desire to fish. It's more than a lack of desire; I have an aversion to it. I know fisherman, bright and kind men, who sit in a boat in the middle of a lake not so much to catch fish, though they do catch them, as to sit alone upon the silence of the lake and the peace lying in the overarching sky. It were bootless for me, poleless, wormless, hookless, to sit in a boat just to sit in a boat. I am content to sit alone in my upstairs study and look from the window at the summer wind running its gentle fingers through the thick mantle of green leaves on the river birch trees. The leaves tremble, like miniscule eddies of water, and on the western side of the trees the afternoon sun illumines the leaves. The summer afternoon is peaceful and quiet, and I am content to watch it runs it ripe and indolent course.

Fred said...

The greatest revelation is stillness.
-- Lao Tzu --

Anonymous said...

by Wendell Berry
What We Need Is Here

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.
And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
What we need is here.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: You're welcome. I'm pleased the post came at a good time. The poems do have a calming effect, don't they?

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. It's good to hear from you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for the haiku, which is new to me. The appearance of the chrysanthemum at the end is lovely -- and startling. Lao Tzu's thought is wonderful: a lifetime of work to achieve that revelation, I think. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it comes in an instant, out of the blue. One can only hope.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for that lovely meditation on silence. It comes to us in countless ways, doesn't it? Like all else, it is a matter of paying attention, of being open and receptive. I'm not much for fishing either, but I do remember the special silence of being out on a lake in northern Minnesota in a rowboat, fishing with my grandfather, as a child.

Thank you again for sharing those thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: I appreciate your sharing the lovely poem by Berry, which is new to me. "What We Need Is Here": exactly. (There is something about geese flying overhead that awakens this feeling, I don't know why. They appear often in Chinese and Japanese poetry, and they bring the same feeling. I've been meaning to do a series of posts on the poetic wild geese of China and Japan for some time.)

Thank you very much.

Fred said...


Yes, it's that chrysanthemum that elevates the haiku above the ordinary. The image of the three of them, all present but silent, relaxes me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Given the season, I've recently been reading haiku in R. H. Blyth's Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn. This haiku by Shirao appears in the volume (page 287):

The garden is dark
In the night, and quiet
The peony.

Also this, by Buson (page 287):

In the stillness,
Between the arrival of guests,
The peonies.

As you know, the silence of flowers is often remarked upon by haiku poets.

Thank you for the follow-up thought.

Fred said...


Buson has a similar haiku:

A short summer night . . .
But in this solemn darkness
One peony bloomed
-- Buson --
A Little Treasury of Haiku

I have the Spring volume by Blythe, but I haven't looked into it yet.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I am on the road from Boulder, Colorado to Seattle at the moment, so I don't have Blyth's Spring volume with me, but I did bring along the Summer-Autumn volume, which includes a series of peony haiku in the Summer section of the volume. The Buson haiku you quote is not included by Blyth. I suspect he includes it somewhere in his four volumes.

On another note, however: coincidentally, this past week I was reading a series of haiku gathered by Blyth in the Summer-Autumn volume in which the key phrase is: "the short night" ("mijakayo"; "mijaka" means "short': "yo" means "night"). Blyth includes several haiku by Buson in this series, but, unfortunately, not the one you quote.

Apparently, Buson was quite fond of the phrase. Here is one of his "short night" haiku:

The short night;
In the shallows remains
The crescent moon.

Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 34.

Thank you very much for the follow-up comment.

Fred said...


Yes, that seems to be a favorite of his. I have a collection of his haiku, _Haiku Master Buson_, and there are six haiku with that phrase, "the short night" mijikayo).

I found one haiku which might be another version of the one I posted above:

In the quietness
of a lull between visitors,
the peony flower!

It's a stretch, I agree. On the other hand, it just may be that the haiku in _The Little Treasury of Haiku_ was mistakenly attributed to Buson.

Here is a different translation of the haiku you posted in your comment:

The night is brief--
on river shallows remains
a piece of the moon.

I prefer the Blythe version--"crescent moon" is superior to "a piece of the moon."

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: As we have discussed in the past, it is always helpful to compare various translations of the same poem, isn't it? I have a copy of Shiffert and Sawa's Haiku Master Buson as well, and I often compare their translations of Buson's haiku with those of Blyth. I confess that Blyth's work is such an important part of my life that I am now predisposed in his favor when it comes to any translation of a haiku. But I still find other translations interesting and instructive.

I suspect that you already have it, but, if not, I recommend Robert Hass's The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (Ecco Press 1994). His translation style is similar to Blyth's: direct, and faithful to the original. The book also contains translations of prose works by the three poets, a great deal of helpful background information, and an excellent bibliography.

Thanks for the further thoughts, and for sharing the additional haiku.

Fred said...


Yes, I do have _The Essential Haiku..._, but haven't really looked into it yet. Right now I'm dipping into The Little Treasury of Haiku, (trans. Peter Beilenson), _Basho: The Complete Haiku (trans. Jane Reichold), and _A Chime of Windbells_ (trans. Harold Stewart).

I've read several of the prose works by Basho, but nothing yet by Buson and Issa. Perhaps I should dust off _The Essential Haiku_ soon, perhaps the Spring volume by Blythe.

I guess my favorite so far is A Little Treasury, probably because it was the first haiku collection I found in a used book store. I was hooked in the first couple of pages. I'm now working on my second copy because the first one fell apart.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the further comment (and please accept my apologies for the delay in responding). I figured you might already have The Essential Haiku. Although, as you know, I am a devotee of Blyth, I have found Hass's translations to be very good. I have also discovered that Hass's collection has further helped me to see the distinctive characters of Bashō, Buson, and Issa. I don't have Beilenson's collection, but I will try to track a copy down.

Thanks again.

Fred said...


A Little Treasury of Haiku
Avenel Books, NY
Peter Pauper Press
trans. Peter Beilenson

Stephen Pentz said...

Thanks, Fred. I see that there are a number of copies available on ABE Books, as well as on Amazon. Thanks again.