Friday, January 31, 2020


We live in a mysterious and wonderful World, dear readers.  Each of us is on a one-way journey to a certain end.  But the date and place of that end are unknown to us.  In the meantime, the seasons come and go, and our planet hurtles through space.  And they will continue to do so long after our flesh and bones have turned to dust.  As for the fate of our souls, we each work that out on our own, alone.

As I have noted here before, an awareness of one's mortality within the ever-turning, never-ending round of the seasons and the universe can be a source of serenity and equanimity.  This will all go on without me.  A comforting thought.  It can be quite exhilarating as well.  And an occasion for gratitude on a daily basis.

Poems can be reminders of this mortality within Eternity.  This past week, I have been reading the poetry of Janet Lewis.  I have long been fond of this:

     Kayenta, Arizona, May 1977

I fall asleep to the sound of rain,
But there is no rain in the desert.
The leaves of the trader's little cottonwoods
Turn, turn in the wind.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press 2000).

Lewis' poem always brings this to mind:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).  The poem is untitled.

What would we do without the sound of the wind in the leaves?  My wish is to spend Eternity lying on the grass, looking up into swaying green boughs and the blue, cloud-dappled sky, as the leaves flutter and flicker in sunlight and shadow, rustling and sighing in the wind. Not likely, you say?  Consider this:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

Here is another of my favorite poems by Lewis:

          Early Morning

The path
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.

The path
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider's web.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis.

I often return to the fragments of blank verse found in William Wordsworth's Alfoxden notebook, which he kept between January and March of 1798.  In one fragment  he writes:  "In all forms of things/There is a mind."  (Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), page 340.)  For a few charmed years, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were thinking the same thoughts.  Thus, it is not surprising to discover this in one of Coleridge's notebooks:  "The paradise of Flowers' & Butterflies' Spirits." (Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1736 (December 1803).)

An outmoded way of looking at the World, some moderns might say. Oh, I don't know.  Who is in a position to exclude any possibility? Wittgenstein again:  "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.52 (italics in the original), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).)  And this:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  (Ibid, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original).)

But I have gone too far afield.  Poems can bring us back to what is in front of us at each moment, if we pay attention.  A gossamer and timeless World.

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 200.

Charles Dawson (1863-1949), "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rocks And Stones

One of my long-term projects is to work my way through Coleridge's notebooks.  My progress has been fitful, but I intend to persist, since the rewards are great.  I have been keeping a commonplace book in which I enter gems that I come across.  In preparation for my latest visit, I reviewed some of my entries, and found this:

"The rocks and Stones seemed to live put on a vital semblance; and Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1802 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1189 (April-May, 1802).

The striking-through of "seemed to live," with the change to "put on a vital semblance," is interesting.  Coleridge's observation appeals to the pantheist in me, to the part of me that is prepared to encounter Immanence at any moment.  On another note, the observation demonstrates why Coleridge and Wordsworth developed (at least for a time) such a close bond.  (More on Wordsworth in a moment.)

James Whitelaw Hamilton (1860-1932), "Glen Fruin"

But it is the movement from the opening clause to the conclusion that makes Coleridge's entry so wonderful:  "Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability." This is a beguiling, moving, and beautiful thought.

The word "Immoveability" brings to mind Wallace Stevens' "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest//In a permanent realization . . . Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,/Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time."  However, the comparison is not wholly apt:  Stevens' conception is colder and more abstract than the warmth and emotion in Coleridge's observation -- in Coleridge, one senses a poignant longing for serenity, for a home.  "Infinite repose."  Of course, Coleridge's thoughts and emotions were a maelstrom and a universe unto themselves, so I am not trying to reduce him to a single strand of his personality.  But I do think this feeling is one that often recurs in his prose and poetry.

In mid-December, I read the following poem, and I immediately thought of it when I came upon Coleridge's entry.

            The Stone on the Hilltop

Autumn wind:  ten thousand trees wither;
spring rain:  a hundred grasses grow.
Is this really some plan of the Creator,
this flowering and fading, each season that comes?
Only the stone there on the hilltop,
its months and years too many to count,
knows nothing of the four-season round,
wearing its constant colors unchanged.
The old man has lived all his life in these hills;
though his legs fail him, he still clambers up,
now and then strokes the rock and sighs three sighs:
how can I make myself stony like you?

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 42.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Upper Wharfedale"

In his selected edition of Coleridge's notebooks, Seamus Perry provides this comment on Notebook Entry 1189:

"Rocks and stones are invested with life in [William Wordsworth's] poetry: there is a sea-beast-like stone in 'Resolution and Independence' . . .; and the Pedlar, an idealized self-portrait [Wordsworth] had described in blank verse written in the Coleridgean spring of 1798, enjoys the same sort of enlivening vision: 'To every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,/Even the loose stones that cover the highway,/He gave a moral life' ('The Pedlar,' ll. 332-4: Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity (1969), 182)."

Seamus Perry (editor), Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford University Press 2002), page 172.

The lines that Perry quotes first appeared in Wordsworth's manuscript of "The Ruined Cottage" before making their way into "The Pedlar" (and eventually into Book Third of "The Prelude").  This is the passage in which the lines are originally found:

To him was given an ear which deeply felt
The voice of Nature in the obscure wind,
The sounding mountain and the running stream.
To every natural form, rock, fruit and flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
He gave a moral life, he saw them feel
Or linked them to some feeling.  In all shapes
He found a secret and mysterious soul,
A fragrance and a spirit of strange meaning.

William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage," Part 1, lines 273-281, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), page 388.

I am aware that there are those who have no time for these sorts of passages in Wordsworth.  I am not out to convince anyone to change their opinion.  As for me, passages such as this are what keep me coming back to Wordsworth's long narrative poems.  I confess that I avoided the poems for years.  And I will not deny that they can at times be prolix and tedious.  But then I arrive at lines like these, and the effort is rewarded.

[A side-note: one cannot speak of rocks and stones and Wordsworth without mentioning this:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Two (Oxford University Press 1952), page 216.

I have written about this poem previously.  Hence, I will not repeat myself, other than to say that the poem is indeed a marvelous thing.]

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Loch Long Hills"

In Chinese poetry, one often hears of recluses living in the mountains amidst the rocks and stones and trees and mists and white clouds. They might be Buddhist monks or Taoist adepts or woodcutters. Chinese poets would go in search of them in order to obtain wisdom, but would usually come back without having found them.  They would then write a poem about their journey.

However, a few of the recluses were themselves poets.  They are more circumspect than Coleridge and Wordsworth when it comes to the place of rocks and stones in the larger scheme of things.  They are not fond of abstractions and explanations.  They point things out.

                   In Reply to Questions

I happened to come to the foot of a pine tree,
lay down and slept soundly on pillows of stone.
There are no calendars here in the mountain;
the cold passes but I don't know what year it is.

The Recluse T'ai-Shang (T'ang Dynasty; dates of birth and death unknown) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 294.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Wharfedale"