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"


Bruce said...

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.”
― Walt Whitman

Not known for being pithy or ruthlessly succinct, Whitman's few words below prove he can be as beautifully laconic and incisive as Emily Dickinson, and as profound. You and Whitman find enchantment, in these cruel and analytic times, great solace.

In another poem ("When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer") Whitman, after listening to a lecture by a "learn'd astronomer" grew tired of the "charts and diagrams" and slipped out of the hall and "wander'd off by myself / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."

Who is he who would pluck the rainbow from the sky and contort it into a vapid spectrum?

John Maruskin said...

Excellent. Simply wonderful. De la Mare and Stevenson are two of my favorite writers. These days I always wake up at around 3 AM and find myself awake for about an hour, during which, after saying hello to the Moon, I read or write. I think for the next few nights I'll listen to what the wind is saying. My favorite Stevenson poem is "Windy Nights." I used to teach "Windy Nights" to kids so they could hear how, in the last four lines, Stevenson works in a Doppler Effect with "low and loud" and then the rhythm of the last three lines mimic the cadence of horse hooves. Now, along with being "self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms," I will also be an evergreen hedge scholar.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, as well as the passages from Whitman. (Now you've made me want to dive back into his poetry!) The first two lines you quote are lovely and apt (and new to me). I was able to track them down in section 30 of "Song of Myself." I discovered that that section contains other lines which seem pertinent to this discussion as well. For instance: "All truths wait in all things;" "The insignificant is as big to me as any." Thank you for bringing this to us.

As for "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," it has long been my favorite Whitman poem, and I am grateful to you for posting it, for it fits well here. "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick . . ." I know the feeling. The last two lines are wonderful.

Your final thought is perfect. And I love the fact that it conjures up Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky. . . ."

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for sharing "Windy Nights," which is new to me. Lovely. It goes quite well with "Nobody Knows," doesn't it? Given that de la Mare is on my mind, I couldn't help but think of the final lines of "The Listeners," that strange and wonderful poem: "Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,/And the sound of iron on stone,/And how the silence surged softly backward,/When the plunging hoofs were gone."

"A scholar of evergreen hedges for ever." That is indeed a wonderful line, isn't it? I was delighted to recently stumble upon Dyment's lovely little poem, which I won't forget.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Nikki said...

One of my first books as a little girl and beginner reader was a 1929 edition of A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES, which had been handed down from one of my father's cousins. More than any other childhood book, it set my imagination alight and introduced me early on to good writing, beauty and mystery. The illustrations by Eulalie seem magical to me to this day. The idyllic stability and peace they promised allowed me to escape an emotionally chaotic family and sometimes lonely household into another way of seeing the world. I feel so lucky that the book found me at just the right time in my life.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: That's a touching memory. Thank you very much for sharing it. It's wonderful to think that Stevenson's book held such an important place in your childhood. As you say, you were indeed fortunate that "the book found [you] at just the right time in [your] life." It is an unforgettable and priceless gift to have that happen.

As ever, thank you for visiting, and thank you again for sharing your memory.

b.c. said...

I like your reassurance that the world is still as it was when we were children...sometimes its hard to remember the awe and wonder when we're buried underneath the news, 'fake' or not, or stuck in traffic, or sitting at a desk looking out the window and not seeing what's really out there, or sitting at home streaming hours of 'entertainment'...

p.s. I memorized "The Swing" when i was a child, because it seemed so wonderful to recite it while on a swing--i still know it :))

Eric Thomson said...

Thanks for William Miller Frazer's "East Linton Pastoral Landscape", which I didn't know. It is a scene from my childhood, as it would have been too for John Muir who lived not far away. The church is St Andrew's where I attended Sunday School in the 1960s.

Stephen Pentz said...

b.c.: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. As I said in the post, "there is no going back." But I do believe that how the World felt to us back then (as you say, "the awe and wonder") can be recovered now, if only for a moment. Poetry is one avenue for this recovery, I think.

It's wonderful to hear about you memorizing "The Swing." It's nice to know that Stevenson's poetry still remains a presence in our culture, as evidenced by your anecdote, as well as Nikki's.

Thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Thomson: It's good to hear from you again. What a lovely coincidence that Frazer's painting has a connection with your life. Over the years, several readers of the blog have reported connections with paintings that have appeared here, which is wonderful. For me, the paintings are only worlds I daydream of walking into.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for your long-time presence here.