Monday, May 27, 2019


"Bourne" is one of my favorite words.  I discussed it in a post back in June of 2013, and returned to it again in October of 2017.  The original sense of the word was "a boundary (between fields, etc.)" or "a bound, a limit."  Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II (Second Edition 1989).  However, thanks to Shakespeare, the word took on another sense:  "The limit or terminus of a race, journey, or course; the ultimate point aimed at, or to which anything tends; destination, goal."  Ibid.  The OED states:  "The modern use [is] due to Shakespeare, and in a large number of cases directly alluding to the passage in Hamlet."  Ibid.  The passage referred to appears in Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy:  "But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will."

As I noted back in 2013, I first encountered "bourne" in this poem by Christina Rossetti:

                 The Bourne

Underneath the growing grass,
     Underneath the living flowers,
     Deeper than the sound of showers:
     There we shall not count the hours
By the shadows as they pass.

Youth and health will be but vain,
     Beauty reckoned of no worth:
     There a very little girth
     Can hold round what once the earth
Seemed too narrow to contain.

Christina Rossetti, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (Macmillan 1866).  No "dread of something after death" here.  Nor anything that "puzzles the will."  Which is quite characteristic of Rossetti.

I later came upon this, which I also included in my 2013 post:

                         The Bourne

Rebellious heart, why still regret so much
A destiny which all that's mortal shares?
Surely the solace of the grave is such
That there naught matters; and, there, no one cares?

Nor faith, nor love, nor dread, nor closest friend
Can from this nearing bourne your footfall keep:
But there even conflict with your self shall end,
And every grief be reconciled in Sleep.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).  De la Mare was fond of Rossetti's poetry.  Perhaps his poem is a conscious or unconscious echo of Rossetti's poem.  The feeling is certainly similar:  "solace," not "dread."  And, "Sleep."

In a recent post I mentioned de la Mare's wonderful anthology Behold, This Dreamer!  One of the sections of the book is titled "The Bourne," and includes an excerpt from William Drummond of Hawthornden's prose work A Cypress Grove (1623):  "Life is a Journey in a dusty Way, the furthest Rest is Death."  Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (Faber and Faber 1939), page 424.  The section also includes Rossetti's "Up-Hill," which begins:  "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?/Yes, to the very end," and which concludes: "Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come."  Ibid, pages 426-427.

George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

My return to "bourne" at this time is occasioned by coming across this passage from John Ruskin last week:

"In the old quiet days of England, which I can but just remember, when it was possible to eat one's dinner without receiving a telegram, and when one might sometimes pass a whole day without hearing the least bit of news, remaining content with the information one had received up to that time of life -- in that benumbed and senseless period, little as you may now be able to fancy it, though nobody could be violently carried about in iron boxes, many people took what they called walks, and enjoyed them.  And quite within access, in that torpid manner, from my own home -- within access also through pleasant fields and picturesque lanes -- there used to be a pastoral valley called the valley of the Stream, or Bourne, of the Raven.  This word Bourne has, as you probably know, two meanings in old English, of which only one, that of limit or end to be reached -- the Bourne from which no traveller returns -- has remained, and that only in poetical use, to our time.  But the more frequent meaning of it in early English was that of a small gently flowing, but quite brightly flowing stream; and when you find the names of villages ending with that word -- Ashbourne, Sittingbourne, or, as in an instance with which we are all now much too familiar, Tichbourne -- it always means that the village stood beside a streamlet."

John Ruskin, manuscript of lecture ("The Bird of Calm") delivered on January 13, 1872, in Woolwich, in The Works of John Ruskin (edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn), Volume XXII (1906), page 239 (footnote 1).

One of the wondrous things about reading Ruskin is that you never know what is around the corner.  This may seem like a truism:  after all, do we ever know what any writer will say next?  But in Ruskin the degree of surprise is enhanced due, first, to his passion for all the particulars of the World and, second, to the universe-wide range of his mind, which may at any moment alight anywhere.  Hence, when I was not expecting it, out of the blue comes a delightful disquisition on "bourne."

The OED gives us this definition of "bourne" as a stream:  "A small stream, a brook; often applied (in this spelling) to the winter bournes or winter torrents of the chalk downs.  Applied to northern streams it is usually spelt 'burn'."  Oxford English Dictionary, Volume II (Second Edition 1989).  However, I prefer Ruskin's lovelier definition:  "a small gently flowing, but quite brightly flowing stream."  "The valley of the . . . Bourne of the Raven."

[A side-note:  I entirely sympathize with the cranky commentary in the first sentence of the quoted passage.  Ruskin was, in general, not pleased with the modern world as it existed in the Nineteenth Century.  One can only imagine how cranky he would be today.  I find his crankiness endearing.  And right on the mark.]

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

I have been dwelling in Victorian England the past few weeks.  In addition to reading Ruskin, I have been visiting some of my favorite poems from that period.  Around the time I encountered Ruskin's discussion of "bourne," I had returned to this:

   A nun takes the veil

     I have desired to go
          Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
     And a few lilies blow.

     And I have asked to be
          Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
     And out of the swing of the sea.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).  "Blow" (line 4) is used in the sense of "to blossom; to bloom."

Does Christina Rossetti haunt this poem as she may haunt de la Mare's poem?  "The Bourne" could not have been a direct influence, since it was published in 1866, after Hopkins wrote his first draft of "Heaven-Haven" (which was originally titled "Rest") in 1864.  But he greatly admired her poetry, and, of course, they shared the same strong faith (although Hopkins's was more fraught).  "Rest" is a word that one comes across quite often in Rossetti's poetry.  In a March 5, 1872, letter to his mother, Hopkins wrote of Rossetti:  "the simple beauty of her work cannot be matched."  R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (editors), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume I: Correspondence 1852-1881 (Oxford University Press 2013), page 216.

In any event, although "bourne" does not appear in the poem, its sense as used by Rossetti and de la Mare fits well here:  a place of arrival, the end of a journey.  The hope, faith, and serenity of the poem never fail to move me.

Fred Stead (1863-1949), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Friday, May 17, 2019

Lilacs And Azaleas And Ant Hills

I have returned to the shores of Puget Sound after my visit to the shores of the Pacific, and I find myself in a burgeoned and burgeoning green World, a leafy Paradise.  But that is not all:  as ever, mid-May is the time of lilacs and azaleas and ant hills.  This is only a partial inventory, of course.  "World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural."  (Louis MacNeice, "Snow.")

The lilacs and the azaleas are lovely, but it is the ant hills that are dearest to my heart.  The never-failing punctuality of those intent beings annually impresses and moves me.  Yes, yes, I am quite aware of the dangers of anthropomorphization.  But the sight of the humble yet brave sand mounds rising in the seams of the sidewalks right on schedule each May provokes tender feelings, and I cannot help but feel that we and the ants are companions in this journey of ours. Which means that I can be accused of sentimentality as well, I suppose.  So be it.  An anthropomorphizing sentimentalist I am.

I do know this:  long after I have returned to the dust, the ant hills will continue to rise each May.  I find this comforting, a source of serenity and equanimity.

   Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-ti (Seventh Century) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945), "L'Aveyron" (c. 1932)

Monday, May 6, 2019


As was the case around this time last year, a thousand-mile road trip has brought me to the shores of the Pacific on the Central Coast of California.  I have once again left the James Dean Memorial Junction (the fateful crossing of California 46 and California 41 out in the middle of a windy, dusty high plain) behind me.  From where I am staying, nothing but water lies between the edge of the continent and a point somewhere on the coastline of Honshu.  Small flocks of pelicans fly leisurely up and down the shoreline from morning until evening.  Inland, the slopes of the still spring-green hills -- usually dotted with live oaks (less so as one travels east) -- are covered in places with patches of purple, blue, orange, or yellow wildflower blossoms.

"As for our waking traffic with the world-at-large -- and how infinitesimal a fraction of that is solely ours -- what a medley this appears to be:  loose, chancey, piecemeal, formless.  From birthday to death-day we continue to collect and weave together the materials of our minute private universe, as a bird builds its nest, and out of a myriad heterogeneous scraps we give it a certain shape and coherence, wherein to lay our treasured brittle eggs.  But how little life itself respects the rational, adapts itself to our convenience, discloses its aim, explains the rules -- despite the fact that every thread of it that is ours is weaving itself into a gossamer fabric thinner even than dreamed-of moonshine, which we call the Past; and which, when in recollection we attempt to record and arrange it and to give it something of a pattern, we shall call autobiography. Nature, inscrutable mistress of her vast household, even although man assumes himself to be her fairy godchild, shows him a fickle favouritism, destroys him if he ignores her, and is indulgent only if he obeys to the last iota her every edict, her every whim.  She is; she perpetuates herself; as if she herself were bemused and in a dream -- with her seasons and her weather, her greenery and stars and her multitudes; creating, destroying, never at rest."

Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (Faber and Faber 1939), page 67.

The First of May, 2019

Ah, the conundrum of what books to bring along on a journey! Anthologies are always good choices.  Hence, I have with me Behold, This Dreamer!  But calling de la Mare's wonderful compendium an anthology does not do it justice.  The volume's full title has a classic English 17th or 18th century feel to it:  Behold, This Dreamer!  Of Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects.  "Kindred Subjects," indeed.  In fact, de la Mare's subjects include the whole of the World and all of Life.  Nothing lies outside the book's borders.


Even the owls are lyrical
     When the moon's right,
And we have no patience with the stars
     On a dusty night.

Love is dull with the mood wrong,
     And age may outsing youth,
For there is no measuring a song,
     Nor counting upon truth.

All's well, and then a flood of loss
     Surges upon delight,
While the rose buds upon the cross,
     And the blind have sight.

Morning wisdom vanishes,
     And dusk brings dread
That stalwart sleep banishes
     Ere primes are said.

He who is sure, has all to learn;
     Who fears, but fears in vain?
For never a day does the year turn,
     But it shall turn again.

John Drinkwater, in Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, page 656.  The poem was originally published in Drinkwater's Summer Harvest: Poems 1924-1933 (Sidgwick & Jackson 1933).

The First of May, 2019

A few days ago, while strolling on the Pismo Beach pier, I passed an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench in the sun, strumming a guitar and singing:  "Oh, sweet darling, you get the best of my love . . ."  I suspect this elderly gentleman and I hail from the same vanished time and place.  Having spent the years from 1967 through 1978 (aged 11 through 22) along the southern and central California coast, a song such as this has a certain evocative quality for me.  There comes a time in one's life when entire eras return in an instant, exactly as they were, with all emotions intact.  This can be a mixed blessing.  But, of course, being here to experience the blessing, mixed or not, is, in and of itself, the greatest blessing of all.

Look downward in the silent pool:
The weeds cling to the ground they love;
They live so quietly, are so cool;
They do not need to think, or move.

Look down in the unconscious mind:
There everything is quiet too
And deep and cool, and you will find
Calm growth and nothing hard to do,
And nothing that need trouble you.

Harold Monro, in Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, page 549.  The poem was originally published in Monro's Real Property (The Poetry Bookshop 1922) as the fifth poem in a sequence titled "The Silent Pool."

The First of May, 2019