Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Dream. Or Not.

Ah, the dreams of felicity that we carry around inside us!  Who knows where they come from?  Who knows how we go about contriving them? And where do we find the materials for these dreams?

Consider, for instance, the dream of the cottage.  A nest.  The small, clear space of tranquility, serenity, and contentment that we long for.  At long last, peace and quiet.

Were I a king, I could command content.
     Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares.
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,
     Nor words, nor wrongs, nor loves, nor hopes, nor fears.
A doubtful choice, of three things one to crave,
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Longmans 1925).  The poem is untitled.

"A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave."  Is this indeed "a doubtful choice"?  I think not.  Obscurity is a good thing.  "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert, most obscure/From all societies, from love and hate/Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure . . ."  What could be better than living an obscure life in an obscure cottage?

                       The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (Unwin 1892).

As I have noted here before, I am unapologetically enamored of the cape-wearing Yeats of the 1890s, the Celtic Twilight Yeats.  This is no doubt the result of coming across his early poems in my impressionable youth.  But I see no reason to change my feelings.  "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" will always remain dear to me.

Of course, even before he replaced his capes with fur coats and began delivering imperious, patronizing speeches in the Irish Senate about the small-mindedness of "the middle-class," the thought of Yeats hand-building a cabin and cultivating nine rows of beans was a risible one.  Still, he was entitled to dream.  As are we all.  To wish to abide where "peace comes dropping slow" is not, and never will be, an idle dream.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"

Is the cottage dream nothing more than a "fond dream," "a lie, . . . a kindly meant lie"?  Modern ironists would think so, and would add what they consider to be the killing epithet:  "a sentimental dream."  However, the poets think otherwise, from the epigrammatists of The Greek Anthology to T'ao Ch'ien and Wang Wei, from the Japanese haiku poets to William Wordsworth and John Clare, from Horace to Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown.  I attend to the poets.

                    The Old Cottagers

The little cottage stood alone, the pride
Of solitude surrounded every side.
Bean fields in blossom almost reached the wall;
A garden with its hawthorn hedge was all
The space between.  --  Green light did pass
Through one small window, where a looking-glass
Placed in the parlour, richly there revealed
A spacious landscape and a blooming field.
The pasture cows that herded on the moor
Printed their footsteps to the very door,
Where little summer flowers with seasons blow
And scarcely gave the eldern leave to grow.
The cuckoo that one listens far away
Sung in the orchard trees for half the day;
And where the robin lives, the village guest,
In the old weedy hedge the leafy nest
Of the coy nightingale was yearly found,
Safe from all eyes as in the loneliest ground;
And little chats that in bean stalks will lie
A nest with cobwebs there will build, and fly
Upon the kidney bean that twines and towers
Up little poles in wreaths of scarlet flowers.

There a lone couple lived, secluded there
From all the world considers joy or care,
Lived to themselves, a long lone journey trod,
And through their Bible talked aloud to God;
While one small close and cow their wants maintained,
But little needing, and but little gained.
Their neighbour's name was peace, with her they went,
With tottering age, and dignified content,
Through a rich length of years and quiet days,
And filled the neighbouring village with their praise.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I am no doubt simple-minded or easily impressed (or both), but my love for the poem turns upon eight words:  "Green light did pass/Through one small window."  No explanation or explication or commentary is necessary.

(An aside:  Clare's ten-line apostrophe on birds is wonderful.  How typical of him.  Does any poet exceed him in the love of birds?  A further aside:  the passage brings to mind the final line of "Happy were he could finish forth his fate":  "Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.")

Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

On a recent evening, I stood at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the branches of a camellia tree that stands beside the house.  If I open the window, I can reach out and touch the leaves.  The camellia and I have kept each other company for 22 years.  In each of those years, I have seen its red flowers bloom, turn rusty brown, and fall away.  How could I have paid so little attention to it through all of those vanished seasons?  "The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms."

Dear readers, we each have it within us to live the cottage life.  It is not a mere dream.  I have said this in the past, and I will say it again:  at this moment, we live in Paradise.

                            A Cool Retreat

Boughs with apples laden around me whisper;
Cool the waters trickle among the branches;
And I listen dreamily, till a languor
                                          Stealeth upon me.

Sappho (translated by Percy Osborn), in Percy Osborn, The Poems of Sappho (Elkin Matthews 1909).  As is the case with nearly all of Sappho's recovered poetry, this is a fragment of a lost poem.  Osborn added the title.

Another translation of the same fragment:

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .

Sappho (translated by Kenneth Rexroth), in Kenneth Rexroth, Poems from the Greek Anthology (University of Michigan Press 1962).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"


Fred said...


I think we all need dreams, and the best dreams are the impossible dreams.

George said...

I suppose that as good a counter-argument as any is Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply" (

The dream of the cottage or of the wilderness is always tempting. But such poets as have been exiled from the metropolis--Ovid and Pushkin come to mind--seem to have felt it as deprivation.

Sam Vega said...

I've just moved back to Sussex, UK, after a couple of years absence. Exploring a small town nearby, I found one of the most beautiful Georgian town-houses I've ever seen. Perfect yet unassuming, I returned several times just to stand and stare at it.

Googling it later, I was surprised to find that Yeats spent much of his final two years there, in the company of his mistress. She died as recently as 1976, it seems. Yeats also thought the house and town to be very beautiful. I never knew he had a connection with this part of the country, but it seems he wrote much of his last poetry in Sussex - including one of my favourites, Long-Legged Fly.

Lee Hanson said...

Another lovely post. Poems and discussions of them nearly always call to mind other poems. Your post instantly made me recall this by Robert Frost:

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

The post also makes me think of JB Priestley who in his memoir Rain Upon Godshill wrote: "there are those who say they never dream, those who never remember what they dream, and then there are the dreamers. I am one of the dreamers. My dreaming self is just as important as my waking self. I have had dreams that haunted me for days and days …”
He then goes on to describe a lucid dream he had that left A most vivid impression upon him. He called it 'the dream of the birds'. I reproduce it here:
“I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon the myriads of birds flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds.
But now, in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and the time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek and then, in a flash, bled and shriveled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless biological effort?
As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us at all, had been born, if the struggle ceased forever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy.
But now the gear was changed again, and time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But, along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of beings.
Birds, people or creatures not yet shaped and colored, all were of no account except so as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought of as tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never felt before such happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds.”

Anonymous said...

One of the most cosmopolitan of poets, Alexander Pope, a man capable of splenetic conduct ("Men who don't fear God, fear me"), wrote a splendid Cottage Poem. I can't imagine the dwarfish, humpbacked, and valetudinarian Pope tilling fields, milking cows, baking his own bread. He, with the aid of his servants, lived a lie of luxury. Pope, a man of great intelligence and taste (he was Byron's favorite poet), a competitive man, often angry and bitter, recognized his flaws, and, as you mentioned in your posting, had his own cottage dream (see poem below).

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

Alexander Pope

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Agreed. With respect to "impossible dreams," I suppose we need to keep alert to the sometimes thin line between dreams and illusions. As an inveterate daydreamer, I am aware of the risks! (Which doesn't mean I always avoid them.) As you know, Chinese and Japanese poetry are both good at reminding us to keep our feet on the ground.

Thank you for those thoughts. It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for sharing the poem by Raleigh: how like him to remind us of Time in response to Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love." Mortality was ever on his mind, wasn't it? (Although, come to think of it, this is true of nearly all the Elizabethan poets. Love and death.)

As I mentioned in my response to Fred's post, I acknowledge that there is a mixture of dream and illusion involved in the cottage dream. But I persist in my dream-illusion fashion. As for Ovid and Pushkin: I am not well enough acquainted with them to make an informed judgment, but, of what little I do know, it seems to me that they were both fond of being at the center of things in the political and cultural world (Rome, Saint Petersburg). Hence, I can see why they would view exile to the hinterlands as a deprivation. To each his own . . .

I always appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you for that information, which I wasn't aware of. I tend to focus on Yeats's younger years.

By the way (and you no doubt already know this), Yeats has another Sussex connection: he and Ezra Pound lived together off and on at Stone Cottage (near Coleman's Hatch and Ashdown Forest) from 1913 to 1916 (primarily during autumns and winters). Again, you probably already know this, but their Sussex idyll is described at length in James Longenbach's Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (Oxford University Press 1988).

As always, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I'm looking forward to more reports from Sussex!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: Thank you very much for sharing both "For Once, Then, Something" and Priestley's account of his dream.

As to the former, it is paired in my mind with Frost's "The Most of It," which I'm certain you are familiar with. Something to do with the World (the Universe, Being . . .) suddenly revealing itself, however enigmatically: "a something white" at the bottom of a well; a deer swimming across a lake. (Long ago I had a remarkably similar experience: during my college years, I spent a few summers living in a cabin on a small lake in northern Idaho, in the mountains. Every two weeks or so, I watched a moose step into the water on the opposite shore, swim across the lake towards the cabin, exit the water into the rushes near the cabin, and casually walk off into the deep woods. This was before I had come across "The Most of It." You can imagine my delight when I discovered the poem.)

As for Priestley's dream: it is absolutely wonderful. I need some time (a great deal of time!) to ponder it. You have mentioned Priestley here in the past, and I really do need to explore his work. The "white flame of life," in conjunction with the birds, brought to mind a poem by Hardy I'm sure you know well:

Proud Songsters

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelve-months' growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.

As you suggest at the beginning of your comment, one thing leads to another, doesn't it?

Thank you very much for sharing these, and for stopping by again.

Fred said...


Yes, Japanese and Chinese poetry are strongly rooted in the physical world, which is probably why I read ao much of their poetry as I do of English language poetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Pope's poem, which fits perfectly here. Although I try my best to not let my feelings about a poet's personal character influence my feelings about their poetry (positively or negatively), I must confess that I have never been able to warm to Pope as a person, and this, alas, has affected my feelings about his poetry. That being said, he wrote much that is beautiful, and this particular poem is one of my favorites by him. I owe him more attention.

Thank you again. I appreciate your taking the time to share this.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: My reading habits are similar to yours. There always comes a time when I feel the need to return to Japanese and Chinese poetry, to get back in touch with what is right in front of us. Of course, there are many English language poets (and poets of other languages) who arguably cover similar ground, and can evoke similar feelings, but it is not quite the same -- in a way that I would be hard-pressed to articulate in a cogent fashion. Of course, the Taoist and Buddhist foundations are at the root of the difference. In any case, it is wonderful to have so many choices, so many paths to pursue, and to return to.

Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Earlier this month Nige wrote a post on Thomas Lovell Beddoes. I read all his poems in the anthologies I have, amounting to five -- one, "Dream-Pedlary" was in each collection. It fits well here:

If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing-bell;
Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?

A cottage lone and still,
With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
Until I die.
Such pearl from life's fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
This would I buy.

mary f.ahearn said...

This post moved me very much. In the last year we moved from our small house because of health and age issues. We've left behind tall old shade trees which gave us that lovely green light which I so miss. It is truly a grieving process for the garden,trees,birds, and the way the light entered the house.
I wonder if you have ever listened to Judy Collins' singing Innisfree? It's lovely. She also did The Song of Wandering Aengus.
Thank you for the continuing beauty of the art and poems you post. A pleasure, always, to see that you've put up a new post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm delighted to hear from you again. Thank you for sharing the lines from "Dream-Pedlary." I agree with you that they fit well here.

Poor Beddoes: has there ever been a poet so obsessed with death, and so haunted by ghosts? And, sure enough, the ghosts appear in the next stanza of the poem: "Dreaming a dream to prize,/Is wishing ghosts to rise." And they return in each of the remaining stanzas. Still, I love "A cottage lone and still,/With bowers nigh,/Shadowy, my woes to still,/Until I die." Alas, this dream was never his to live.

I hope that all is well with you, and that you are having a nice summer. As always, thank you very much for visiting. I hope you will return soon. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: As always, thank you very much for your kind words. It's very nice to hear from you again.

I'm sorry to hear about your move. It must indeed be a difficult "grieving process," as you say. But I hope you carry with you your memories of "that lovely green light," and all else, including "the way the light entered the house." My comment about the camellia reflects my own effort to pay more attention to, and to be more grateful for, those sorts of daily beauty. It definitely sounds like you treasured the beauty you had, and never took it for granted, which is something you will never lose.

Thank you for the references to the two songs by Judy Collins, which I was not aware of. I tracked them down on the internet: lovely. Those two poems are well-suited to be set to music and sung, aren't they?

As ever, it's a pleasure to have you visit. I greatly appreciate your long-term presence here. Take care.

Fred said...

Stephen--perhaps it may be that the Chinese and Japanese poets treat it as natural, something that's just there, while Western poets seem to think it's something special. Perhaps I'm wrong, but perhaps we Westerners are too analytical, something we got from the Greeks, maybe.

Lee Hanson said...

Thanks for the Hardy poem. I was aware of it although only dimly. My favourite Hardy poems are Dead Man Walking and Wessex Heights, though I admire pretty much all of his Poems of the Past and of the Present and his Poems 1912 13. He was a masterful poet and to think he wrote novels solely to fund writing poems. Please call me Lee. Mr Hanson sounds very formal

Stowey said...

Stephen, sometimes I think your blog is the very best bit of the internet. I only come and read it occasionally because I don't want it to become humdrum with too much anticipation so I make sure that when I visit there is always a new plenty of poetry and images. Wonderful!

Funny I should be sitting in my own cottage and I am idly preparing a pointless kindle edition of an obscure little prose book of Edward Thomas's titled 'The Country'. I was wondering if I was up to the task of writing a brief introduction - just a few paragraphs about the idea of 'the country' and what it meant at the turn of the century to put the work in context. Now I am full of inspiration and I will start with Innisfree.

Very best wishes to you.

Tim W

Stowey said...

And Mary, what a treat to hear Judy Collins singing 'Innisfree'! New to me. Something of a lament. I hadn't thought of the poem that way but of course, the longing for peace is just that.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I agree with your thought about the Chinese and Japanese poets accepting the World and its particulars as "something that's just there." As you know, this does not in any way mean that they take anything for granted: their wonder at, and gratitude for, the World is evident in everything they write. I also agree with your thought about Westerners generally being "too analytical." (Although, that being said, the past three weeks I have been preoccupied with reading poems from The Greek Anthology, as well as other Greek lyric poems, and I find that they often feel a great deal like Chinese and Japanese poetry.)

As you have heard me say before: thinking is highly overrated, and we ought not to do it so much.

Thank you again for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Lee: Thank you for the follow-up comment. Your remark about being "aware of [Hardy's poem] although only dimly" is apt when it comes to reading Hardy's poetry: whenever I return to it, I nearly always come across a poem and think: "Have I read this before? It seems familiar . . ." Given that he wrote over 900 poems, when we return to his poetry we find old favorites, discover something new, and come across others that seem like old acquaintances, but who may have been misplaced in our memory.

I share your fondness for Poems of the Past and the Present and Poems 1912-13. But my favorite volumes are the four with which he closed out his life from 1917 through 1927: Moments of Vision, Late Lyrics and Earlier, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles, and, lastly, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres. It always astounds me to think that he wrote so many wonderful poems between the ages of 77 and 87. And, from nearly all eyewitness accounts that I have read of him, he was as mentally keen and as emotionally alive as ever during those years. Something we can all hope for, but which is hard to achieve.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting and for sharing your thoughts. I hope that your visit to the States was enjoyable.

Stephen Pentz said...

Tim W: Thank you very much for your kind words, which I greatly appreciate. That's very nice of you to say.

"Occasional" visits are perfectly appropriate! Such visits fit in with my evolving practice here: I am taking more time to wait for things to come together, and to collect my thoughts. Whatever appears here will not go anywhere, and awaits your return. All in good time.

I'm happy to hear you are putting together a kindle edition of The Country. You say it is "an obscure little prose book," but I think it is a wonderful "obscure little" book. I encountered it long after I had come to Thomas through his poetry, when I was trying to catch up on all of his prose writings (which I am still doing). For me, it typifies one of the things I love about his prose: his weaving in of his enormous knowledge of a great number of things, including, of course, the whole of English poetry. In one of my long ago posts, I commented that his great eruption of poetry in the final three years of his life should not come as a surprise: he knew English poetry backwards and forwards, and he knew exactly what he had it in him to do, if only the opportunity arose. Which it did (out of tragic circumstances). Given that it was published in 1913, The Country almost feels like a prelude to, an anticipation of, the poems that were soon to come.

I have taken down my copy while writing this. The final sentence is wonderful, isn't it? "But even in southern England an angle of country is always to be found purer than what had long been thought purest, to take the place of the desecrated, and greener pastures, villages deeper hid than Imber, denser copses, deserts more idle, longer emancipating views, deeper silences of that unknown god." "Deeper silences of that unknown god" is particularly lovely, I think. Is what Thomas says still true? I hope so.

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Anonymous said...

I think you often recheck for belated comments, so I hope you see this.
You gave me best wishes for my summer, so I want to tell you that I have been celebrating the best 80th birthday anyone ever had, in New Hampshire, with my sons, four grandchildren, & cousins. Happier than I have been since my husband died three years ago.
And now I'm home with two new posts of yours to enjoy.
Very Best Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: It is wonderful to hear from you again, and particularly on such a special occasion for you. Congratulations and best wishes on your milestone birthday! I wish you many, many more. As I hope you know, I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here. Your birthday celebration in New Hampshire reminds me of one of the first exchanges you and I had here: about Wallace Stevens's "thought-like Monadnocks" (in "This Solitude of Cataracts") and New Hampshire, if I recall correctly.

I look forward to sharing more poetry and art together in the coming years. As always, thank you very much for stopping by. Take care.

Anonymous said...

it's wonderful that you remember that. My grandchildren climbed Monadnock this visit!