Monday, February 25, 2019


There is something to be said for paring life down to a handful of precepts.  After all, the work has already been done for us over thousands of years by those who are far wiser than us.  It is a matter of tracking the precepts down and trying them on for size.  I have discovered that the winnowing process becomes easier the older one gets:  the ever-present matter at hand tends to focus one's attention.

While this winnowing of precepts goes on, I intend to spend as much time as possible walking, and idling, beneath trees.  When not beneath those innumerable beautiful trees, I shall be reading poems. All the while (whether beneath trees or not beneath trees) I hope to be in a state of reverie, blissfully absent from the modern world.  But I know full well that nothing will go according to plan, particularly the denouement of the ever-present matter at hand.

Speaking of the ever-present matter at hand, here is a fine precept with which to begin:  "Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742).  Or, translated differently:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  (Jeremy Collier, 1701.)  Collier's version has a nice piquancy, and is both affecting and lovely.

This advice is neither doleful nor terrifying.  Quite the opposite: it reminds us that the possibility of joy is present in each moment.  Why not live?  The commonplace is never commonplace.

   Encountering Snow, I Spend the Night
         with a Host on Lotus Mountain

Deep in green mountains.
The weather is cold,
This thatched hut is poor.

Out at the gate
Of rough brushwood
A dog barks.
Someone comes home
On this night
Of wind and snow.

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing (c. 710 - c. 785) (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books 1987), page 165.

Anonymous, "A Field Gate in Moonlight"

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  If we pay heed to this precept, each moment becomes a miracle.  Consider Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing's poem.  Snow falls.  A thatched hut in green mountains.  A dog barking by a gate.  Out in the night, a stranger returns home.  After reading the poem, someone might say:  "Nothing happens."  Or:  "So what?"

I would say:  "Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing has presented us with a miracle." This leads to another precept:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original) (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness, 1961).  An alternative translation: "There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical."  (Translated by C. K. Ogden, 1922.)

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing, like all poets, must rely upon words.  In doing so, he has created a thing of beauty.  But a beautiful poem is a finger pointing at the moon (to borrow a phrase from Buddhist thought).  I would not wish to live without all of these beautiful poems.  Yet there is more in each moment, more in the World.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"

So.  At each moment, we stand at the edge of the grave, surrounded by miracles that cannot be put into words.  What shall we do?  Live. With gratitude.  A third precept comes to mind:  "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, The Enchiridion, Section 8 (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

To a mountain village
     at nightfall on a spring day
          I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
     from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988 - c. 1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

James Leslie Brooke (1903-1973)
"Early Autumn, Castle Hill from the South-West"


Wurmbrand said...

Mr. Pentz, your posting promptly brought to my mind a letter C. S. Lewis wrote to his longtime friend Owen Barfield. The occasion was the worsening international situation. Nazi Germany had invaded Austria and gotten away with it. More recently, Britain had negotiated the surrender by the Czechs of their Sudetenland to the Nazis. Despite these concessions, war was imminent.

In this context, Lewis wrote to Barfield about a delusion we all tend to live in. (My brackets supply a translation of the Greek word that Lewis actually used.)

“I had so often told myself that my friends and books and even brains were not given me to keep: that I must teach myself at bottom to care for something else more (and also of course to care for them more but in a different way) and I was horrified to find how –cold- the idea of really losing them struck. An awful symptom is that part of oneself still regards ‘interruptions’ as if (ludicrous idea) the happy bustle of one’s personal interest was our real [task/work], instead of the opposite.

“I did in the end see (I dare not say ‘feel’) that since nothing but these forcible shakings will cure us of our worldliness, we have at bottom to be thankful for them. We –force- God to surgical treatment; we won’t (mentally) diet. …If we are separated, God bless you, and thanks for a hundred good things I owe to you, more than I can count or weigh.”

(C. S. Lewis to Owen Barfield, 12 Sept. 1938)

I thought it good: what Lewis said about rejecting the delusion that labels unwanted and unexpected demands on us as “interruptions” of our real life, when those “interruptions” are integral elements of our lives – being signs of that very great part of our lives that we don’t and can’t control, and that makes demands on us to exercise compassionate action, suppression of resentment and the exercise of hope, faith, and love, etc. And I think there’s a connection between what Lewis says to Barfield at the end of my excerpt and your own posting’s emphasis on –gratitude-.

Dale Nelson

Ultra Monk said...


Nikki said...

Absolutely fantastic post. All of the poems -- transcendent. I'm copying them into my journal. Thank you so much.

Bruce said...

Mr Pentz,

For as long as I've read your blog, you have consistently "winnowed" the precepts by which you evaluate and interpret life. Your precepts are simple--and time-proven. What endures in poetry is the wonder and awe a mind can discover in the world outside the window, the quotidian, things as simple as the evenfall or evensong, the rising of the sun, the rain on the roof, the wind soughing in the trees, a full moon on an autumn night--things only banal to a banal sensibility.

Great poets don't look above the world; they look at the world. It provides, they tell us, all the wonder and meaning and purpose we will ever find. Would I be wrong to surmise that most of the poetry you quote is "quiet" and meditative, imbued with contentment, all but saying, "What is before me is enough," though tinted with the inevitable sorrow from the realization of the human predicament--the ephemeral human imagination as fragile as the brief life of the bright-colored butterfly?

Great poets, like their inferiors, die, but great poetry, unlike mediocre poetry, survives. Li Po and Basho and others died long ago. Yet their poetry survives.
The below poem by Emily Dickinson says that, yes, poets, like the lamps they light, go out, but the "wicks they stimulate" if "vital," will last as long as the sun hangs in the sky, each age nestled into the wise and beautiful "circumference" of the poem. Catch the beauty as if flies, for before long, the viewer will find himself swept away by the blind and inexorable river of time.

The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for the passage from Lewis' letter to Barfield (which is new to me), and for your own thoughts that follow upon it. I think I understand Lewis' (and your) point (including the mistake of calling the world's troubles "interruptions"), but I tend to lean toward withdrawal from "interruptions." I haven't the fortitude or the faith to use them to "cure [myself] of [my] worldliness."

I recently read a poem by Han-shan (translated by Burton Watson) which ends with these lines: "Though I look down again on the dusty world/What is that land of dreams to me?" Arthur Waley translates the same two lines as follows: "Looking again beyond the dusty world/What use have I for a land of empty dreams?" Of course, Han-shan is looking down on the dusty world from Cold Mountain. This sort of view can seem overly detached and, well, cold. But it holds the possibility of compassionate action as well.

I also think of the poem "Reading in Wartime" by Edwin Muir. The first two lines of his poem "In a Time of Mortal Shocks" (written in 1940) may also be apt: "Live on through these and learn what is this life,/Pure spirit indwelling." In an August 2, 1940, letter to Stephen Spender enclosing the poem, Muir wrote: "I find it hard to write anything with sense in it at present; odd lines of poetry keep coming to my mind, but no coherent argument will follow from them; perhaps that will come."

I have no answers. But I certainly agree with your closing suggestion that gratitude is always in order.

As ever, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ultra Monk: You're welcome. It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for visiting, and for your long-time presence here.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm pleased you liked the poems. Thank you for stopping by again.

John Ashton said...


My absence for a while has been due to the unexpected death of my young niece who fell from a horse she was exercising at the training stables where she worked. Tragically she was killed in the fall.

Your words “What shall we do? Live. With gratitude. Resonate very powerfully at the moment. I’ve always felt there is so much to the commonplace, ordinary, everyday world which is not in the least way ordinary, but rather extraordinary. There are times, when moments seem to root us more deeply. It has been such a time over recent weeks.Attention more focused on what is here, what is now. Poetry and nature a consolation, yes, but so much more.

Thank you for Abersoch, one of my favourite R S Thomas poems and the poem of Liu Ch’ang-ch’ing, so evocative and which I didn’t know.

And yes, the possibility of joy is present in each moment. On walks taken over the past few weeks I’ve seen the first snowdrops, two sightings of a great spotted woodpecker on consecutive days and heard the beautiful song and been privileged to glimpse a nuthatch in local woodlands I’ve known for many years. I came and saw this.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: That is a lovely meditation on life and death, and on the role that poetry can play in how we reconcile ourselves to both. I wholly concur with your description of what the best poets do: "they look at the world" and "tell us [that the world provides] all the wonder and meaning and purpose we will ever find." This is a fine way of putting it. I like your formulation: "What is before me is enough." Yes, I agree with you: many (most?) of the poems that move me (and the ones that find their way to this blog) embody that sentiment.

As you have often done in the past, you have provided us with a poem that goes right to the heart of the matter. "The Wicks they stimulate/If vital Light//Inhere as do the Suns --/Each Age a Lens/Disseminating their/Circumference." As you say, this is why poets such as Dickinson, Bashō, and Li Po will never vanish. This is why I have always doubted the constant cries (I have been hearing them all my life) that "poetry is dead" and "literature is dead." This is said in every successive generation. It is wrong. Dickinson and Bashō and Li Po will survive because a handful of people in each generation will read them and find that their lives are changed. "The Wicks they stimulate . . ." That which is best in humanity is always on the edge of extinction.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I always look forward to hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: I am so sorry to hear about your niece. I have been trying to think of further words to say to you, but I find all of them wholly inadequate. The best I can do, and it is not enough, is to hope that you and your loved ones can find some measure of peace and solace at this time in your thoughts and memories of her.

At times such as these, "moments seem to root us more deeply," as you say. Hence the snowdrops, the woodpecker, and the nuthatch you have encountered recently. Your closing thought, echoing Nōin's poem, is perfect: "I came and saw this."

Thank you for visiting during this difficult time. Please take care.

Duke said...

Your quote from Wittgenstein put me in mind of Psalm 19:
"The heavens tell out the glory of God,
the vault of heaven reveals his handiwork.
One day speaks to another,
night with night shares its knowledge,
and this without speech or language
or sound of any voice.
Their music goes out through all the earth,
their words reach to the end of the world."
The New English Bible

Stephen Pentz said...

Duke: That is lovely, and fits perfectly here: thank you very much for sharing it. After reading it, I was curious as to how the King James Version looks. Here it is:

1. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
2. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
3. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
4. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Thank you again.

Shanti said...

What a fantastic wonderful site, and profound comments as well. I just came across your site while looking for a poem by Edwin Muir. This past Sunday I attended a workshop where a major theme was to take each day with the sure knowledge that it might be your last, with gratitude to have been given this day, and a view to fulfilling and fully living the unique nature each day presents. Thank you for the poetry and commentary. I've signed up for your blog, to add to the poetry wisdom email subscriptions I already receive. It's so beautiful, what a wonderful contribution you are making. I will tell the members of my spiritual poetry meetup about it. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Shanti: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm happy you found your way here.

The theme of the workshop you attended certainly does fit well with this post, doesn't it? And particularly with the suggestion from Marcus Aurelius. Of course, that piece of wisdom can be found in all times and in all places, can't it? But we each need to discover it, and live it, on our own. A daily goal.

Thank you again. I hope you will return soon.