Sunday, January 27, 2019

In Time

A few weeks ago, when it was particularly wet and cold here (as opposed to our standard wetness and coldness), bird sounds nearly vanished from the woods and the fields.  There were occasional lone calls from off in the distance, or brief twitters from within nearby bushes or clumps of wild grass.  No lively conversations.  No music.

But the past week the World was full of chattering and singing.  This likely had something to do with the unseasonably warm and dry weather, together with the ever-lengthening hours of daylight. Whatever the cause, the sounds were charming and touching.  One felt the force of Life that is always around us, but can sometimes be difficult to find.  The voices seemed to have a resolute tentativeness, a hesitant confidence.  One could sense the beginning of a change.  But not quite yet.

My soul, sit thou a patient looker on;
Judge not the play before the play is done:
Her plot has many changes:  ev'ry day
Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.

Francis Quarles (1592-1644), Emblems, Divine and Moral (1635).

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window"

Yes, we are well-advised to patiently wait for the denouement.  In the meantime, it is best not to jump to conclusions, or to take anything for granted.  We live in a time when there is far too much preternatural self-assurance abroad in the human world.  There is something to be said for the acceptance, and cultivation, of uncertainty.  We are, after all, abiding in "the vale of Soul-making." Only one thing is certain.

Patience.  "All in good time, all in good time," say the voices in the woods and in the fields.

Poor little, pretty, fluttering thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly,
     Lies all neglected, all forgot;
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior (1664-1721), Poems on Several Occasions (1709).  The poem is untitled.  It is Prior's version of the Emperor Hadrian's death-bed poem ("animula vagula blandula"), which is addressed to his soul.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)


bruce floyd said...


In his poem about Tintern Abbey Wordsworth posits that beauty is half created by one's sensibility. Was it Blake who said that a fool and a wise man don't look at the same tree?" You describe with your customary grace and eloquence, always brilliantly a bit understated to add dignity and intelligence to your words, the effect the sounds of the birds had on you, their fugitive song during a hiatus from the wet and chill of dismal winter days.

One could say that what you heard is the old augury that spring will come eventually, these few birds you heard the vanguard to bring the news. Would you admit that others, upon hearing these precursors of spring crying prophecy, would hear nothing but the squawk of noisy birds?

Why would one person find revelation and wonder and mystery and promise in the sound of birds and another person hear nothing but an irritating cacophony seeping from a patch of woods? Would you say that the difference between the acute listener and the bored and agitated auditor ("Good God, what a racket those stupid birds are making) is a matter of sensibility in the hearer?

Back to Blake a moment: he said that one must not see with the eye but through the eye. One who sees through the eye allows his imagination to participate in the perception of beauty; that is, the acute sensibility is complicit in the apprehension of beauty.

My point--and I sometimes wonder whether I ever have a coherent one--is that "beauty" does not exist (we could quibble about this comment, I know) without a human sensibility to help give it birth.

I once heard a woman who had returned from a tour of the American West sum her trip. She raved about the gaudy glitter of Las Vegas, but of her visit to the Grand Canyon she said, "Don't waste your time going to see the Grand Canyon. It's nothing more than a damn big hole in the ground." Would one be precipitate to conclude that this comment exposes a moribund sensibility. When I heard her say this, I didn't think she'd appreciate my quoting Keats to her. Perhaps I judged her unfairly but I immediately concluded she was a vulgar and coarse person, one certainly beyond my scope and ken to redeem.

Below is a poem by Emily Dickinson in which she states clearly and unequivocally that whether the song of the oriole is "a common thing" or a "divine" thing has nothing to do with the bird. She says, "The tune is not in tree." No, the tune, its beauty and wonder is in the one who hears it. It is "in thee." Her life is a testament to her insight.

To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing—
Or only a divine.

It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd—

The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair—

So whether it be Rune,
Or whether it be none
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree—"
The Skeptic—showeth me—
"No Sir! In Thee!"

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for those lovely and inspiring thoughts. (Although I do, of course, thank you for your kind words, I fear you give me far too much credit when you suggest I have any sort of "sensibility" that differs from that of anybody else: these are things we all see and hear and feel, if we pause. I am reminded of what Philippe Jaccottet writes in his Landscapes with Absent Figures (and I will note for the record that I am not, and never will be, in his league): "All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed." (Translated by Mark Treharne.))

As you have done so many times before, you have given us a wonderful poem by Dickinson which hits the nail on the head. Thank you. "So whether it be Rune,/Or whether it be none/Is of within." Perfect. I agree with you that "her life is a testament to her insight."

The thoughts from Blake and Wordsworth are wonderful as well. I have been feeling for quite some time that I have failed to give Blake the attention he deserves, and your thoughts confirm that I need to correct my failing sooner rather than later.

The thought of beauty being created (partly or wholly) by our own sensibility brings to mind a haiku by Shinkei (1406-1475):

The one looking --
he also lends some color
to the moonlight.

(Translated by Steven Carter.)

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by, and for expanding and deepening the discussion.