Saturday, October 21, 2017


The Oxford English Dictionary defines "bourne" as follows:  "The limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course; the ultimate point aimed at, or to which anything tends; destination, goal."  I first came across the word in "The Bourne" by Christina Rossetti.  I later encountered it in a poem of the same title by Walter de la Mare.  I visited "bourne," as well as both poems, back in June of 2013.

The word pops into my head from time to time for no apparent reason, other than that I am fond of it.  A few poems that I have been mulling over the past couple of weeks brought it to mind again.

In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

The poem is the first poem in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."  "Thirteen years" (line 4) refers to the amount of time T'ao Ch'ien served as a government official before becoming a farmer.  Burton Watson explains "ten mou" (line 9) and "eight or nine spans" (line 10) as follows:  "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres.  A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese-style house."  Ibid, page 129.

George Reid (1841-1913), "Landscape with a Lake"

The bourne that Rossetti and de la Mare describe in their poems is the grave, which they portray as a fairly congenial destination.  I associate the word "bourne" with the word "repose."  Although I am certainly amenable to the notion of a bourne of eternal repose, I see no reason to long for, or to hurry towards, that possible state.  There are wholly congenial bournes available to us short of the grave, as T'ao Ch'ien suggests in his poem. "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  No need to rush things.  Have a look around.


     Chide, chide no more away
The fleeting daughters of the day,
Nor with impatient thoughts outrun
                    The lazy sun,
Or think the hours do move too slow;
                    Delay is kind,
     And we too soon shall find
That which we seek, yet fear to know.

     The mystic dark decrees
Unfold not of the Destinies,
Nor boldly seek to antedate
                    The laws of Fate;
The anxious search awhile forbear;
                    Suppress thy haste,
     And know that time at last
Will crown thy hope, or fix thy fear.

Thomas Stanley (1625-1678), Poems and Translations (1647), in L. I. Guiney (editor), Thomas Stanley: His Original Lyrics, Complete, In Their Collated Readings of 1647, 1651, 1657 (J. R. Tutin 1907).

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), "Evening, Ludlow" (1899)

The potential pathways to a bourne of repose are innumerable: innumerable because of the uniqueness of each human soul.  Still, because human nature has never changed (and will never change), we are not without guides.  Poets and philosophers have preceded us.  They provide us with clues to which we should attend.  For instance, Epictetus tells us:  "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."  Epictetus (translated by W. A. Oldfather), The Enchiridion, Section 8.  Variations on this bit of advice may be found in every part of the world, and at every point in the history of humanity.  It is a finger pointing to the moon.

T'ao Ch'ien tells us much the same thing, but in his own way.  As I noted above, he left governmental service (a prestigious vocation in his time) to become a farmer.  His poetry reflects the joys as well as the vicissitudes of the life he chose.  He writes about the fear of failed crops and the loss of his house to a fire.  An awareness of the fact of our mortality is ever-present in his poems, but this awareness is matter-of-fact, not mournful or self-pitying.  His path seems to have led him to a bourne of repose.

          Reading The Book of Hills and Seas

In the month of June the grass grows high
And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway.
There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests;
And I too -- love my thatched cottage.
I have done my ploughing;
I have sown my seed.
Again I have time to sit and read my books.
In the narrow lane there are no deep ruts;
Often my friends' carriages turn back.
In high spirits I pour out my spring wine
And pluck the lettuce growing in my garden.
A gentle rain comes stealing up from the east
And a sweet wind bears it company.
My thoughts float idly over the story of the king of Chou,
My eyes wander over the pictures of Hills and Seas.
At a single glance I survey the whole Universe.
He will never be happy, whom such pleasures fail to please!

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).  "The Book of Hills and Seas" is "an early work describing the fantastic travels of the ancient King Mu of the Chou dynasty.  The text was discovered in a tomb in 281."  Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 138.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

As I have noted here in the past, we should not presume that we will grow wiser with age.  However, we may at least be able to recognize, and rid ourselves of, certain false notions and conceits about ourselves.  The less baggage, the better.  The more humility, the better.  A lifelong task.

"There is a certain time appointed for you, which, if you don't employ in making all calm and serene within you, it will pass away, and you along with it; and never more return."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book II, Section 4.  Time is short.  Age brings no guarantee of wisdom.  But, if we are attentive, receptive, patient, and fortunate, we may arrive at a clearing in the forest, the surrounding shadowy woods shot through with angled shafts of sunlight.

          Of the Last Verses in the Book

When we for age could neither read nor write,
The subject made us able to indite;
The soul, with nobler resolutions decked,
The body stooping, does herself erect.
No mortal parts are requisite to raise
Her that, unbodied, can her Maker praise.

The seas are quiet when the winds give o'er;
So, calm are we when passions are no more,
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.

The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become,
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Edmund Waller (1606-1690), Divine Poems (1685), in G. Thorn Drury (editor), The Poems of Edmund Waller, Volume II (A. H. Bullen 1901).

Mary Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (1900)


Anonymous said...

I so appreciate this blog and all the insights, connections, and beauty you offer to your readers. Thank you so very much! I read every post many times and treasure each visit.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much: that's extremely kind of you to say. Of course, all of the credit goes to the poets and the painters: I am just the messenger, bringing their gifts.

Thank you again. I greatly appreciate your presence here.

Anonymous said...

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy in English literature, Hamlet's "to be or not to be" musing, Hamlet uses the word "bourn." I quote a portion of the soliloquy below.

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (90

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing that reference. By the way (and as you probably know), the OED, in its entry for "bourne," has this note about Shakespeare's use of the word in the soliloquy you quote: "Shakspere's [sic] famous passage probably meant the 'frontier or pale' of a country; but has been associated contextually with the goal of a traveller's course."

Thanks again.

George said...

"Eschaton" has a similar range in Greek. In Christian theology, eschatology is the doctrine of "ta eschata", the last things. But in older Greek, the "eschaton" referred to might be the end of a field (farthest I suppose from the house) as in the Odyssey, or in adjectival form designate a border town.

mary f.ahearn said...

Beautiful poems - the fourth and fifth lines of the first T'ao Ch'ien resonates deeply.
"The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew."
Thanks for the poems, as always

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for that information, which I wasn't aware of. The relationship between "the last things" and "the end of a field" (or the "farthest [field] . . . from the house") is a lovely, evocative thing to contemplate.

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: I'm pleased you liked the poems. The lines you quote are my favorite lines in the poem. Lovely.

It's always good to hear from you. I hope you are enjoying a beautiful autumn in your part of the world. Thank you very much for visiting again.