Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A New Year

I've never been one for participating in New Year's Eve celebrations. But I am not a curmudgeon about it:  if others find the countdown to the arrival of the New Year exciting, I wish them well in their merrymaking.  I, however, will be sound asleep as the year turns.

Mind you, I am not insensible to the Inexorable March of Time or to "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  For example, on Sunday evening Marcus Aurelius brought me this:

"Remember also that each man lives only the present moment:  The rest of time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown.  It is a very little time which each man lives, and in a small corner of the earth; and the longest surviving fame is but short, and this conveyed through a succession of poor mortals, each presently a-dying; men who neither knew themselves, nor the persons long since dead."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Section 10, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

After reading the passage, I sought out Jeremy Collier's translation. Although Collier has been criticized for his lack of fidelity to the emperor's Greek text, his late 17th century-early 18th century English prose is often lovely and colorful.  And such is the case in this instance:

"Remembering withal, that every Man's Life lies all within the Present; For the Past is spent, and done with, and the Future is uncertain:  Now the Present if strictly examin'd, is but a point of Time.  Well then!  Life moves in a very narrow Compass; yes, and Men live in a poor Corner of the World too:  And the most lasting Fame will stretch but to a sorry Extent.  The Passage on't is uneven and craggy, and therefore it can't run far.  The frequent Breaks of Succession drop it in the Conveyance:  For alas! poor transitory Mortals, know little either of themselves, or of those who were long before them."

Marcus Aurelius, Ibid, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726) (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Paterson (1854-1932),"Moniaive" (1885)

Marcus Aurelius' thoughts in turn bring this to mind:

            The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall --
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I recognize that the combination of the emperor's thoughts and Clare's poem may not be everyone's cup of tea on the cusp of the New Year.  You'll certainly not find me criticizing those who wish to sing "Auld Lang Syne" in good cheer with their fellows at the stroke of midnight.  We are in "the vale of Soul-making," after all, and there is more than one path through it.

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Here is a final New Year thought from yet another time and place:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying,
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor and translator), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 82.

The poem (which is a waka) appears in Kokin Wakashū, an anthology that was compiled in approximately 905.  (Ibid, page v.) The headnote to the poem states that it was "composed at year-end." (Ibid, page 82.)  "Tomorrow River" is an alternative translation of Asukagawa ("Asuka River"), and is based "on the pun inherent in its name -- the sound asu meaning 'tomorrow'."  (Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 480.)

There are many paths.  And all of those yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Happy New Year, dear readers!

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)


Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,

Coming home from mass and sitting down for tea I was very pleased to find your New Year‘s post. I chime with your thoughts and feelings. By nature I am not the one to greet the New Year with firecrackers but I can find solace in looking at the mirthful faces of those who do so.

Nonetheless I think I am more with Clare.

"The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none."

I cannot help but think that he is offering us a glimpse into his own lonely self here. Anyway, it‘s deeply touching.

And I am with Gerald Finzi who told a friend:

"I love New-Year’s eve, though I think it’s the saddest thing of the year."

As a young man he wrote an orchestral nocturne called "New Year Music". It is headed by a preface:

"The title, Nocturne, shows this to be music for New Year’s Eve, expressing the ‘sober sadness’ which Charles Lamb has so movingly described. Here, then, are no merry-makings and such-like,
but something of the mood which is well suggested by the words of Robert Bridges ‘when the stars are shining Fared I forth alone’"

Thank you very much for offering thoughtful company by way of a select choice of poems throughout the year, Mr Pentz!
I also want to thank all your devoted readers who took the trouble to share their often very personal thoughts with us!

A happy New Year!

GretchenJoanna said...

These are my favorite kinds of thoughts for the new year. I also prefer to spend my present moments that are near midnight, asleep, so as to better spend the moments when I wake.

That line of Clare's "all nothing everywhere," caught my attention and makes me muse.

Happy New Year!

Maggie Emm said...

Happy New Year Stephen! Looking forward to lots of good things, including your wonderful blog.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: It's wonderful to hear from you again. Thank you for visiting at the turning of the year.

I agree with your thought that the lines from Clare provide us with "a glimpse" into Clare's "own lonely self." The edition of his poems from which I took the text indicates that this poem was written during the years when he was in an asylum. The lines you quote bring to mind "I am! yet what I am none cares or knows . . .", don't they?

Thank you for the reference to Finzi's "New Year Music," which I was not aware of. I will track it down. And thank you as well for sharing his preface. Finzi's reference to the lines from Robert Bridges intrigued me, since they were new to me. I discovered (as you probably already know), that they are from Bridges' poem "Noel: Christmas Eve 1913," which is lovely. I was pleased to find these lines in the poem, in reference to church bells: "The constellated sounds/ran sprinkling on earth's floor." "Constellated" is a rare word to come across, and I immediately thought of a phrase from Thomas Hardy's poem "The Rambler": "constellated daisies."

Finally, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog and its "devoted readers." I wholly agree with your thought about the readers of the blog. You are one of those "devoted readers," and your long-time presence here means a great deal to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts over the years. I have learned a great deal from you. Best wishes for the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

GretchenJoanna: Thank you for those thoughts. I agree: "all nothing everywhere" is a fine, thought-provoking line, and the contrast Clare makes with the morning mist in the following lines is lovely.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Happy New Year to you as well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you very much for the New Year's wishes and for your kind words about the blog. I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Deb said...

Happy New Year to you too, Stephen. But yes, it's just one day after another, and we don't bother to celebrate at all. It's usually the one night of the year we cannot stay awake till midnight, even if we want to. Some sort of subconscious rebellion against tradition :-)

But this is not about the New Year, or your lovely post. I was just tidying away a stack of books, and one of them was "Elected Friends - Poems for and about Edward Thomas", and I wondered if you had the book yourself? I haven't had it all that long myself, but find I'm always moved by a pleasant sort of heart-ache and feeling of nostalgia when I dabble in its pages. What a beloved man he was.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Thank you for the New Year's wishes. As for staying up till midnight: I am an "early to bed, early to rise" person, so reaching midnight is always a struggle, regardless of the occasion!

Yes, I do have a copy of Elected Friends, and it is indeed a wonderful and moving book. To read all of those heartfelt poems about him, and to realize what an impact he has had on people, is quite moving. You've probably already noticed this, but, just in case you haven't, there is a lovely poem by Auden tucked away on the last page of the book. The editor explains: "At the very last moment I heard of this unpublished manuscript poem by a poet deeply influenced by Edward Thomas -- W. H. Auden. Permission was granted in time to include it as a fitting postscript, a final tribute."

As for the impact Thomas had on people, I have never forgotten the final sentence of Eleanor Farjeon's memoir of him: Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford University Press 1958). The sentence is immediately preceded by Farjeon's recounting of Thomas' death in April of 1917. She then closes the book with this (the "Bertie" referred to is her brother): "Ten years afterwards Bertie said to me, 'I wake in the night and cry for Edward still.'" As you say, he was "a beloved man."

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always good to hear from you. Happy New Year!

Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,

I should have given the source of Finzi's quotation from Bridges' poem but I decided to trust in your excellent sleuthing skills.

The poem had cast a spell on Finzi. You will probably have found out that he came back to it late in life. He used the first and last stanzas to frame a setting of the nativity story, a highly original approach. "In Terra Pax" is deeply touching. Somehow Finzi succeeds in reconciling modern man's scepticism and his longing for peace.

I have made it a tradition to listen to this piece every New Years's Eve, enjoying the silent warmth of a few candles before I go to sleep.

Deb said...

Thank you for that, Stephen! At first I checked at the end of the poems, and fleetingly thought, no, I must have a different version. Then checked on the very last page, as you said. It's lovely, and I might never have known it was there if you hadn't mentioned it.

Must get myself a copy of The Last Four Years as well. Have read several other books relating to his life, but not that one as yet, though I have come across the quote you mentioned, about Bertie.

Thank you again, and *may* you have a wonderful *2020* too. Asterisks are because I just realised my birthday was in that sentence - what fun! :)

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: Thank you very much for the information about "In Terra Pax," which I was not aware of. I have since listened to it: it is lovely and, as you say, touching. I have read a piece about it which suggests that it may have been inspired by a Christmas Eve early in Finzi's life when, from the top of a hill, he heard church bells ringing throughout the Gloucestershire countryside. Your listening to it each New Year's Eve is a wonderful tradition: a perfect setting for the turning of the year.

Thank you for your follow-up thoughts, and I apologize for my delay in responding to them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I'm pleased you liked Auden's poem. It is indeed lovely. You probably already know of it, but, if not, I recommend Auden's Juvenilia: Poems, 1922-1928 (edited by Katherine Bucknell), which was published in 1994. The poem appears in the book. There are also a number of poems which clearly show Thomas' influence on the young Auden.

Farjeon's The Last Four Years is well worth seeking out. In addition to her detailed recollections, it contains a number of letters from Thomas that are of interest. The spirit of the book is reflected in this passage from the foreword: "He counted on me for friendship; and I loved him with all my heart. He was far too penetrating not to know this, but only by two words, in one of his last letters from France, did he allow himself to show me that he knew. Our four years were undemonstrative, and unfailing." (Page x.) Farjeon's reference is to this sentence in a letter from Thomas to her dated March 27, 1917, in which he has described day-to-day life on the front: "It is worse for you and for Helen and Mother, I know." (Page 258.) Farjeon writes: "In those two words 'for you,' Edward laid by his reserve for the only time in our friendship, and allowed me to know that he knew how much I loved him." (Page 259.)

Thank you very much for your follow-up comments.