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)


tristan said...

once walked knee deep in a spanish forest towards the end of a very long drought ... the oak leaves were so hard they had a metallic ring

Stephen Pentz said...

tristan: Thank you for sharing that lovely memory. It brought to mind this poem by Andrew Young:

Walking in Beech Leaves

I tread on many autumns here
But with no pride,
For at the leaf-fall of each year
I also died.

This is last autumn, crisp and brown,
That my knees feel;
But through how many years sinks down
My sullen heel.

Thank you very much for visiting again.

John Ashton said...

It is a mysterious and wondrous world. Buds showing on the trees yellow and purple crocus in bloom, snowdrops, all seen on my walk at the weekend. You could sense life all around. The dance of it becoming more urgent inside all things. The wind among the leafless branches, bright mosses and the grey-green blush of lichen on wind-thrown trunks, and yes I hope this will all go on without me…there are so many things we cannot put into words. One of the reasons we turn to poetry and the words of those who can.

Thank you for reintroducing me to Janet Lewis. I’m aware you have posted some of her poems before, but sad to say I had forgotten about her.

It has been a very busy January. The university has had a larger than usual intake of new students, many more than we normally expect at this time of the year. Consequently far less time than I would like to find time to read or walk, and not enough time on my allotment as it has been a very wet month. Signs of spring, and a quieter, hopefully drier month ahead will enable more time outdoors, closer to what is in front of me to be savoured in each moment.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your lovely meditation on spring. I read your comment this morning, and, when I went out for my afternoon walk, your observations were, coincidentally, borne out by what I saw all around me. We have had rain nearly every day since the year began (more than ten inches), but for the past few days we had a break, and the sun emerged. Today seemed exactly as you describe your weekend walk: "You could sense life all around. The dance of it becoming more urgent inside all things." A quickening.

A few days earlier, I had been thinking about when the first crocuses would appear: it is usually the first or second week of February. You mention the purple and yellow crocuses in your comment. Sure enough, on my walk today I saw the first crocuses: purple and yellow bunches. And daffodil shoots. And large, furry buds on the magnolia trees. Thus, your comment was extremely serendipitous. Thank you.

I'm pleased you liked the poems by Janet Lewis. I recommend the Selected Poems (2000); also, Poems Old and New, 1918-1978. The advantage of the former volume is that it contains a number of fine poems written after 1978 (she lived until 1998, passing away at the age of 99), including the wonderful poem "River," which has appeared here before.

I hope you will find more free time as spring arrives in full. As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Esther said...

Your beautiful musings on the spider's web reminded me of Princess Irene's almost-invisible guiding thread in George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, spun by her great-great-grandmother of spider silk. The princess can feel and see it, shimmering like a bit of gossamer in the sunlight, while Curdie, who does not yet believe in her great-great-grandmother, initially sees nothing. Eventually he comes to rely on it, too.

Anonymous said...

I love the second picture on this post. When I enlarge it I can see the little train puffing along the viaduct, the curls of its smoke echoing the clouds above. They are spring or summer clouds, so lovely to see, so unlike the low ceiling of gray we've had above us a great deal of the time since the New Year. We have a few snowdrops & green shoots in sheltered places in the parks, but no sense of spring -- not enough light as yet. Not really cold either, but raw most of the time. That's why the blue picture brought me so much pleasure.
I too have read those poems by Janet Lewis before here; it is welcome to read them again: much in little.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for the reference to The Princess and the Goblin -- a book I was unaware of. (Alas, my exposure to children's literature was minimal when I was young, and I have never corrected that deficit. I have come across a few of MacDonald's poems in anthologies, but I gather that he is best known for his fiction and other prose writings.)

The threads and webs of spiders are indeed wonderful things, aren't they? A lovely combination of delicacy and strength. It is always a delight to see them floating in the sunlight, or, on a damp or foggy day, to see their watery silver strands floating in the air.

As always, thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Yes, "Accrington from My Window" is beautiful, isn't it? (As you no doubt recall, it has appeared here before.) Of course, it is those branches against the blue and white sky that immediately catch the eye. Your description of it as "the blue picture" is perfect. But the greys, blue-purples, and dull grey-greens of the cityscape are lovely as well. I agree: that steam train on the viaduct is a fine touch -- the World goes on in front of us, framed by those wonderful branches, beneath the wide sky.

I'm pleased you like the poems by Janet Lewis. "Much in little" is an excellent way to describe them. This description fits a large number of the poems I like best. Haiku come immediately to mind, of course. Or poems from The Greek Anthology. But it is also true of poetry from all times and in all places.

As ever, I'm happy to hear from you. Thank you for visiting. I wish you a wonderful spring. As you know, it has a way of suddenly appearing when winter seems to be dragging on.

Anonymous said...

The Internet is a treasury of serendipity. I must write about this instance of it; Esther's reference to The Princess and the Goblin. I adored that book as a child, & last summer on a brief visit to our family property in New Hampshire, I unexpectedly found my old copy on a little-visited shelf. I reread it -- sat down & was immediately immersed. I'm 82, & rereading it was like meeting a beloved old friend.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: That is indeed a lovely coincidence. Thank you very much for sharing it. It is wonderful to think of you and Esther having that book in common, and having those separate experiences cross paths here. You are right: the Internet can be "a treasury of serendipity." Something to bear in mind in contrast with, for instance, Twitter. (But I won't get started on that.)

Thank you again.

Pen said...

Hello Stephen,
There are some early mornings (very, very early) when, in the midst of a confusing and frightening time of my middle-aged life, it seems that only your blog can bring comfort, perspective and relief. So I find myself scrolling through your old posts, gratefully ingesting lines of poetry, of philosophy, of gentle wisdom.
I'm in the southern hemisphere, as I've said before, where it is now summer with its rain and humidity. We are not used to grey skies! But the payoff is the green; every plant and tree and inch of moss frantically putting forth verdancy as if to fend off the long, dry, brown rainless season ahead. Here it's not so much a case of "begin afresh" as "end afresh".
This reminds me of the way you fend off your characteristic mild melancholy with poetry and art. This is why I love your blog. You are downcast through the northern winter but you struggle against it - this winter you may have been more low-spirited than previously; I wondered if you have been unwell. My thoughts reach out to you, and my eternal gratitude for the consolations you offer, the quiet joy and succour your carefully chosen words convey.
Tonight I searched the de la Mare tag, to bring mystery and colour back to my life. Thank you, it has been wonderful. And there were two things I wanted for you: one is the poem "Amends" by Adrienne Rich in which the description of apple blossom in the moonlight is so striking; the other is for you to look up the call of the fiery necked nightjar. This last is a seasonal visitor to my land, and tonight, for the first time in months, I heard his call. And all my life rushed in on me, muddled and fragmented as it is, and your posts held me together. Thank you again. Pen

Stephen Pentz said...

Pen: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts, and for your kind words about the blog. With respect to your concern about me perhaps being "low-spirited" or "unwell": not at all! However, I must say that, although I have lived here for forty years and am intimately familiar with all variations of rain and mist, the nearly constant rain (or so it seemed) of this past January was a bit daunting, if only because it made my walks shorter, darker, and damper. But that has passed.

Your description of the green land in which you live is lovely. Although the leaves are absent, the rain and the moderate temperatures (and the evergreens) keep us green throughout the winter -- but a different sort of green than yours, no doubt. For instance, just the other day, when the sun appeared, I was marveling at the beauty of the thin layer of bright green moss that covers the asphalt pathways in a park I walk through.

I appreciate your recommendation of the poem by Adrienne Rich: it is the first poem of hers I have read. (I'm afraid my knowledge of contemporary American poetry is limited.) Her description of the moonlight is lovely (as is "the white star" on the apple bough you mention in your comment). Thank you as well for directing me to the song of the fiery-necked nightjar: beautiful. (The wonders of the Internet.) I can only imagine what it is like to hear it outside your window.

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