Sunday, August 25, 2019

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Six: The Stars, The Planets, And The Wind

On a recent late-summer-declining-into-early-autumn afternoon, as I walked toward a distant big-leaf maple, watching its green boughs swaying high in the cloudless sky, I suddenly felt the same wordless wonder and joy at the mysterious miracle of the World that I felt when I was a child.  The feeling came out of nowhere, and lasted only an instant.  Yet, for that instant, I was who I was fifty or sixty years ago.  Nothing had changed.

Fear not, dear readers!  I do not intend to launch into an apostrophe about how we ought to "see the World through the eyes of a child."  I am simply reporting a fact.  As for reconciling how we experience the World as children with how we experience it as adults, I would refer you to William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  I cannot hope to improve upon that.

The morning after my fleeting return to childhood, I happened upon this:

                          Escape at Bedtime

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
     Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
     There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne'er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
     Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
     And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
     And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
     Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
     And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
     And the stars going round in my head.

Robert Louis Stevenson,  A Child's Garden of Verses (Longmans, Green 1885).

I am particularly fond of ". . . and the pail by the wall/Would be half full of water and stars."  A friend who read the manuscript of A Child's Garden of Verses at Stevenson's request had proposed a revision to the lines.  Stevenson's response is worth noting:

"For line 12 [Sidney] Colvin suggested . . . 'Twinkled half full' instead of 'Would be half full.'  RLS sharply rejected this:  '"Twinkled" is just the error; to the child the stars appear to be there; any word that suggests illusion is a horror'."

Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003), page 364.

Exactly.  The World of the child is one of wonderment and enchantment and mystery.  Anything is possible.

William Miller Frazer (1864-1961), "A West Coast Fishing Village"

Stevenson's poem put me in mind of this:


Wide are the meadows of night,
     And daisies are shining there,
Tossing their lovely dews,
     Lustrous and fair;
And through these sweet fields go,
     Wanderers amid the stars --
Venus, Mercury, Uranus, Neptune,
     Saturn, Jupiter, Mars.

Attired in their silver, they move,
     And circling, whisper and say,
Fair are the blossoming meads of delight
     Through which we stray.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

As in "Escape at Bedtime," the World of "Wanderers" is an enchanted and enchanting place.  Stevenson's "thousands of millions of stars" have been transformed into daisies shining in "the meadows of night."  A lovely image.  I am reminded of two instances in which the image is reversed:  Thomas Hardy's "constellated daisies" on "the grassy ground" ("The Rambler") and Andrew Young's "The stars are everywhere to-night,/Above, beneath me and around;/They fill the sky with powdery light/And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;/For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star" ("Daisies").  (There is never an end to the ways in which poets invite us to see the World, is there?)

But that is not all:  an enchanted and enchanting World is a World of mystery.  "But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,/And the stars going round in my head."  "And through these sweet fields go,/Wanderers amid the stars . . . And circling, whisper and say,/Fair are the blossoming meads of delight/Through which we stray." Where is our place in this World of stars and planets and daisies?  A child's question.  An adult's question.

[A side-note:  I like the fact that de la Mare and Stevenson do not patronize the children for whom they write.  (The same is true of Christina Rossetti.)  I also like the fact that "Escape at Bedtime" and "Wanderers" could be mistaken for "adult poems" if one encountered them outside the context of a book of "children's verse."  (This is true of a great many of the "children's poems" written by de la Mare, Stevenson, and Rossetti.)  Of course, modern ironists might scoff at this latter assertion, but they have ironized themselves out of Beauty and Truth long ago, haven't they?  Alas, there is no hope for them, so knowing and so undeceived.  Their World is disenchanted.]

William Miller Frazer, "East Linton Pastoral Landscape"

A disenchanted World holds no mystery.  Where do we come from and whither do we go?  Once again, this is both a child's question and an adult's question.  Early and late, it is a question one asks in an enchanted World.

               Nobody Knows

Often I've heard the Wind sigh
     By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
     Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
     While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
     What it said.

Nobody knows what the wind is,
     Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
     And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
     Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
     That covers me.

And so we live under deep water,
     All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
     When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
     And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
     Burns day.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes.

Is this a poem for children or a poem for adults?  A passage from another context comes to mind:

"Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren.  The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation."

Walter Pater, from "Conclusion," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 250.

I would suggest that we may substitute "poetry" for "philosophy" in Pater's sentence.  Whether "Nobody Knows" is a "children's poem" or an "adult's poem" is thus of no moment.

William Miller Frazer, "Morning, Newburgh-on-Tay"

"Escape at Bedtime," "Wanderers," and "Nobody Knows" carry us off into the vast and unknowable cosmic mystery of the World.  This is a fine thing.  Now and then.  But most of our life consists of making it through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon (to borrow from Walker Percy).  Yet the quotidian (not a pejorative term) is a vast and unknowable mystery as well, isn't it?

The World is as it was when we were children.  It is still here in all of its enchantment and mystery, in all of its beautiful particulars.  How we experienced the World as a child may sometimes return to us in evanescent moments of clarity, shot through with emotion.  This is a wonderful occurrence.  Like the sudden return of how it felt to fall in love for the first time.  The heart catches in the throat.  Ah, that was it!  But there is no going back.

This is no cause for sadness or despair.  Our daily task is to be attentive, receptive, and, above all, grateful.  An enchanted or a disenchanted World?  The choice is ours.

                        Boy's Song

I walked as a boy by evergreen hedges
And glancingly fingered their leaves as I passed;
Pictures in colour rose fluttering from them
Complete with accurate field notes of song.

I listened delighted to easy lessons
In a high summer school of brilliant birds --
If this were learning I wanted to be
A scholar of evergreen hedges for ever!

Clifford Dyment (1914-1971), Collected Poems (J. M. Dent 1970).

William Miller Frazer, "A Lincolnshire Fen"

Sunday, August 11, 2019


One might not expect the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and A. E. Housman to share a great deal in common:  Stevenson, teller of tales, inveterate traveller, doomed to die at an early age, and knowing full well his fate; Housman, exacting classical scholar, ostensibly impassive, but harboring an unrequited love for over forty years, until the death of the beloved in a foreign land.  But I would suggest that, in their poetry, they are kindred souls.  One needn't look far to find the thread of mortality running through their poems, now at the surface, now receding.  Yet it is always there, despite the bluff and hearty manner they both often affect.

On two occasions, this consonance of spirit is displayed in a clear and lovely fashion.  One occasion involves poems by Stevenson and Housman that have their source in a traditional French children's song.  The second involves a self-penned epitaph transformed into an elegy.

While living in France in 1875, Stevenson wrote the following rondeau:

   Nous n'irons plus au bois

We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire,
To weep for old desire
And things that are no more.
     The woods are spoiled and hoar,
The ways are full of mire;
We'll walk the woods no more
But stay beside the fire.
     We loved in days of yore
Love, laughter and the lyre.
Ah God but death is dire
And death is at the door --
We'll walk the woods no more.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh University Press 2003).  "Nous n'irons plus au bois" (which may be translated as "we will no longer go to the woods") is the first line of a children's song. The second line of the song is:  "Les lauriers sont coupés" ("the laurels are cut down").  Stevenson likely had read a poem by the French poet Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) which begins with these two lines.  This may have inspired the rondeau.  Ibid, page 560.

The poem first appeared in a collection of Stevenson's letters published in 1899, five years after his death.  Sidney Colvin (editor), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, Volume I (Methuen 1899), pages 105-106 (letter to Frances Jane Sitwell, August 1875).  It has been suggested that Housman may have come across the poem when reading this volume.  Roger Lewis, The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, page 560.

Sometime between 1900 and 1922, Housman wrote this:

We'll to the woods no more,
The laurels all are cut,
The bowers are bare of bay
That once the Muses wore;
The year draws in the day
And soon will evening shut:
The laurels all are cut,
We'll to the woods no more.
Oh we'll no more, no more
To the leafy woods away,
To the high wild woods of laurel
And the bowers of bay no more.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).  The final handwritten draft of the poem contains the title "Nous n'irons plus au bois."  Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997), page 70.  The poem served as the untitled epigraph to Last Poems, but without the title; the text was italicized.

Is Housman's poem an intentional echo of Stevenson's, or is its existence merely a coincidence, a case of each poet being separately enchanted by the haunting sound and sense of "nous n'irons plus au bois"?  We will never know.

David Murray (1849-1933), "The Tithe Barns" (1905)

No speculation is necessary when it comes to the second crossing of paths between the two poets.  The connection is clear.  We begin with Stevenson's best-known poem:


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
     And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was originally published in Underwoods (Chatto & Windus 1887).

The poem was written between 1879 and 1880.  Stevenson lived fourteen more years, but he was never under any illusions about his prospects.  This is evident throughout his poetry, but there is no self-pity, no complaint.  For instance:

I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem is untitled.

Stevenson died in Samoa on December 3, 1894.  On December 22, 1894, the following poem by Housman was published in the weekly issue of The Academy above an obituary for Stevenson.

                       R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
     Her far-borne canvas furled,
The ship pours shining on the quay
     The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
     Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
     And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
     The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
     The hunter from the hill.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).

Housman's writing of "R. L. S." within such a short time after Stevenson's death, and seeing it into print within three weeks, is something to ponder.  Bear in mind that A Shropshire Lad was not published until May of 1896.  In 1894 he was known only as a professor of Latin at University College London, not as a poet.  He was not in the habit of seeking to publish poetry in periodicals.  It would seem that something had moved him.

As for the poem itself, my oft-stated principle applies:  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  "R. L. S." is a fine and lovely thing.

David Murray, "A Hampshire Haying" (c. 1895)

Perhaps I am being too reductive in suggesting that Stevenson and Housman are kindred souls.  An argument can be made that death is the ultimate subject of all poetry.  Their death-haunted poetry is arguably no different than that of scores of other poets.  Moreover, an alternative argument can also be made, as articulated by Edward Thomas:  "all poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  (Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 87.) Then again, beauty is a candidate as well, isn't it?  But this in turn leads to a further thought: "Death is the mother of beauty."  (Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning.")  And on it goes.

Enough of that.  As ever, it is the individual poem that matters.

                      An End of Travel

Let now your soul in this substantial world
Some anchor strike.  Be here the body moored; --
This spectacle immutably from now
The picture in your eye; and when time strikes,
And the green scene goes on the instant blind --
The ultimate helpers, where your horse today
Conveyed you dreaming, bear your body dead.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Roger Lewis (editor), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The poem was written in Samoa. It was first published in 1895 in Songs of Travel and Other Verses, a posthumous collection.

David Murray, "The Stream" (1892)