Saturday, March 14, 2020


As ever, spring arrives in fits and starts.  On a sunny day, there seems to be no stopping it:  the deep green lawns and fields are bordered with purple, yellow, white, and red.  The next day, a cold wind settles in.  Up in the grey sky, the branches -- budding, but still empty of leaves -- click and clatter, and the thick limbs groan.  A lone goose passes overhead, calling.  Where has its flock gone?  Out on a wide meadow, a group of crows stand in a circle, quarreling.

Yet, as I noted in my previous post, a threshold has been crossed:  the cherry trees have begun to blossom.  You may recall, dear readers, that I am wont to visit A. E. Housman at cherry blossom time.  To wit:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  But I have been reading Horace's odes recently, so this year a translation by Housman of one of the odes will take the place of my old standby.

                        Diffugere Nives

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithoüs in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).  This is the seventh ode of Book IV of the Odes.  "Diffugere nives" are the opening words of Horace's Latin text, and may be translated as "the snow disperses" or "the snow melts."

One can understand why this poem appealed to Housman.  There is a lovely anecdote about Housman and the poem.  The anecdote has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting.

"During my time at Cambridge, I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years.  At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read.  At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room.  He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front.  One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.'  This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.

"Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said:  'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.'  Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt.  He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own.  'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.

"A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us.  'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said.  'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"

Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The snow has vanished and the cherry blossoms (soon to flutter down in a drift of petals, alas!) have arrived.  But this is never the end of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), is it?  How could it be otherwise?  Why would we expect it to be otherwise?  (With the exception, in my case, of wishing to spend Eternity lying in the grass on a never-ending late summer or early autumn afternoon, looking up into the green-leaved, sun-and-shadow-mottled, wind-swaying boughs of a tree.)

Marcus Aurelius has wise words for us:  "How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at any thing which happens in life!" (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13.)  Spring is here.  But not for long.  Anything is possible.


The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Derwent Lees (1885-1931), "Aldbourne" (1915)

Recently, the robins have changed their tune.  The flat, matter-of-fact chirping of the short winter days has been replaced by song.  From all directions, from out of the fields and the bushes and the trees, come the voices of the unseen singers.  The music continues into the night.

  Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-ti (Seventh Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 92.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"


Anonymous said...

Yes, between "the March and April line," which is right now as I write--the dogwoods down the lane in bloom--is that time of year when the birds return and fill the air with their song, and this great burst of life, this surging vitality full of promise, an augury of summer, rivets and stitches us with ambivalence. It's too obvious, perhaps a cliche, that the renewal of the earth always reminds us that what we have lost is irrevocably lost--so much so that we stand on antipodes: the sweet melody of the birds cheers us by telling us the earth is coming alive and yet, at the same time, it reminds us of voices we once loved are now stilled forever.

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.

It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing Dickinson's poem, and for your lovely introduction to it.

You and Dickinson provide a needed reminder of the sometimes mixed blessing of birdsong: "The saddest noise, the sweetest noise . . ." I recently quoted Auden's "Their Lonely Betters" in responding to a comment, but this time his "Bird-Language" (which I'm sure you know) comes to mind. After acknowledging that he may at times hear "fear," "rage, bravado, lust" in "the words/Uttered on all sides by birds," he ultimately concludes: "All other notes that birds employ/Sound like synonyms for joy." That seems like a reasonable conclusion to me when it comes to robins in spring. ("Between the March and April line": that's a fine phrase!)

Thank you again for the reminder of the "ambivalence" that accompanies spring. Falling petals and evocative birdsong.

Nikki said...

Many of the wonderful paintings you feature are like windows onto a forgotten world. They are mostly new to me and yet familiar scenes from some part of my soul.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: That's a lovely thought. As I believe I have mentioned before, the paintings that appear here are worlds that I would like to walk into, that I daydream about walking into. But your comment makes me wonder: am I daydreaming about perfect worlds, or am I recalling, as you say, "familiar scenes from some part of my soul," from "a forgotten world"? (Or, all of the above?) Again, a lovely thought. Thank you very much for sharing it. And, as ever, thank you for visiting.

tristan said...

Hurrah ! Another welcome dose of medicinal beauty.

Stephen Pentz said...

tristan: Thank you. I hope that's the case. We need beauty now, don't we? Thanks to Horace (via Housman), Mahon, Yang-ti (via Waley), and the three painters, we have it.

Thank you very much for stopping by again.