Saturday, May 23, 2020


"Days are where we live."  "For the days are long -- /From the first milk van/To the last shout in the night,/An eternity."  In the end, our life is a tangled skein of days.  From this welter, what can we retrieve, what remains with us?  Not days, but a handful of isolated, charmed moments.

The moments return, unaccountably, unbidden, in brilliant clarity. The days and years drop away.  Ah, yes.  So that was my life.  You may have known this at the time.  If so, you are fortunate.  Or you may come to know it only as a heart-catching pang of recognition -- distant, long-lost, but better late than never.

                                The Ash Grove

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval --
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles -- but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

"The way leads on . . . The road leads on."  "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?/Yes, to the very end."  Life is a journey.  We've heard that often.  Yet it is a few brief intervals of lucent stillness that ultimately stay with us.  "Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval."  Evanescent.  But enough.  An aspect of eternity.

                            On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin.'

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

Duncan Grant, "The Doorway" (1929)


Esther said...

I greatly enjoyed your musings today..."a heart-catching pang of recognition -- distant, long-lost...." You tied everything together so wonderfully and got very close, I felt, to the heart of something about life that is always escaping us. Your post gave me chills and tears, which is the highest praise I can give anything.

Allan said...

Dear Stephen,

While the Thomas poem clearly refers to an actual grove of ash trees that he knew, it looks very likely that he is also alluding to the Anglo-Welsh folk song of that name. There is more than one version, but reflection on the death of lovers or family is common to them.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you so much.

The seeming randomness of the memories we retain is wonderful and moving, isn't it? But in fact they are not random at all, are they? As your comment suggests, they are freighted with emotion and implication. Some of this we can (perhaps) rationally account for if we trace our way back, but a great deal cannot be explained. Which is a mysterious and lovely thing.

I'm happy to hear from you again. I hope that all is well with you, and will continue to be so. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Allan: Thank you for providing that background on "the song of the Ash Grove." Edna Longley's annotations to Thomas' poems are extremely helpful, and she mentions the song in her annotation to "The Ash Grove." She writes:

"'Llwyn Onn' or 'The Ash Grove' is a traditional Welsh harp melody to which various Welsh and English words have been set. 'Restless wing' (l. 7) and the poem's anapaestic rhythms suggest that Thomas has in mind the version by 'Talhaiarn' (John Jones, 1810-1870), of which this is the first stanza:

Shine, blessed sun, on the home of my boyhood,
Bright be thy rays on the famous 'Ash Grove',
Dear to my heart is the home of my parents,
Home of my infancy, home of my love;
Far, far away I have sailed o'er the ocean,
Still guided by fate on the wings of unrest;
Oh! that I had the swift wings of the swallow,
To fly to my home, to return to my nest."

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley), p. 273.

As you probably know, there may or may not be another interesting echo in "The Ash Grove": "ghostly gladness" also appears in Evelyn Underhill's 1912 edition/translation of The Cloud of Unknowing: ". . . rising and springing of abundance of ghostly gladness." Thomas wrote "The Ash Grove" in February of 1916. The phrase also appears in a prose poem by Richard Rolle (14th century). Did Thomas know of either of these past appearances, or is this just a wonderful coincidence? Either way, it is a lovely and haunting phrase.

Thank you again. And thank you very much for visiting.

Esther said...

P. S. I have happy memories of singing The Ash Grove, to Oxenford's lyrics, with the rest of the class at my sixth grade graduation many moons ago. But lines like "the friends of my childhood again are before me...I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome" are much more poignant at this distance in time, aren't they?

Thank you for your well-wishes. The state of emergency was lifted a couple nights ago, and I am doing fine.

Anonymous said...

I've just been listening to two versions of "The Ash Grove", both lovely, both having different words than the ones you quote. I have known the song since my childhood -- presumably I heard it from my mother, who attributed it to Handel.
This is a stunning post, & a stunning poem. Between your post, Thomas's poem, and the song, it seems somehow that everything is expressed....

Bruce Floyd said...

I may be wrong (the older I become the more tenuous my faith in judgment and evaluation of art, in finding concer or themes, linking this with that), but it seems to me that many of Thomas Hardy's poems are about an interval, a moment, something frozen in his memory that he, years later, pulls out, thaws, and shapes into a poem. He is a poet who celebrates--even if many of the poems are tinged with melancholy--the epiphany of the moment. Only Hardy's genius rescues the poem from the tiresome cliche of an old man, one somewhat maudlin and soaked in nostalgia, lachrymosly longing for sweet days gone. Hardy transcends this trap and avoids sentimentality. One responds to the poem honestly, not with a sense that the poet is manipulative, bending the reader's arm to find pity in the poem. One could say the same thing about some of the poetry of Cavafy. I think the below poem, "At Castel Boterel" is an example of a Hardy poem where his memory is so powerful that for a moment he finds himself once again enmeshed in it. Yes, as it always does, "Time's unflincing rigour," evaporates the illusion, and he sees his vision "shrinking," and he knows, as he probably always did, that the sweetest of moments, no matter how the cling to him, are fated to fail. Here's the poem:

At Castle Boterel

by Thomas Hardy

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, ―
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story ? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order ;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is—that we two passed.

And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
Never again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for your follow-up comment. Here's a wonderful coincidence: as you can see from the comment above, you and Susan share childhood memories of "The Ash Grove." How lovely! (And yet another reason why I am so fortunate to have you, Susan, and others leave comments on the blog.)

In the time since you and Susan left your comments, I have had an opportunity to listen to many versions of the song (in terms of both performers and lyricists), and it is quite beautiful. I can understand why you and Susan have long-lasting and fond memories of it. And why Edward Thomas carried it around with him as well.

I am delighted to hear that you are doing well, and that the state of emergency has been lifted where you are. Our "lockdown" (horrible word; it makes me want to rebel) is in a confusing state of flux. Tiresome.

Again, take care, and thank you again for both of your comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your memories of "The Ash Grove." As you can see from Esther's follow-up comment above, the two of you have had similar experiences with the song. It's wonderful to come across these lovely human connections.

I hope that you have been able to get out a bit (carefully!) to enjoy the Spring. You have certainly been in the thick of this mess. I think of you and wish you all the best.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: That poem is perfect for this occasion. Thank you very much for sharing it. Your observations about Hardy are acute and wonderful. I entirely agree. I immediately thought of a passage by him in The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy (which was, although credited to Florence Hardy, essentially written by Hardy, as you know). Here is the passage (I'm sure you are familiar with it, so I beg your indulgence): "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred." Thomas Hardy, The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1985), page 408. (A side-note: Hardy and his ever-present graveyard images!)

Well, I think his "faculty" was "uncommon," and it is embodied movingly in "At Castle Boterel." I'm sure this poem has moved more than a few of us, each for our own reasons. And, as you suggest, this "faculty" is at work in hundreds of other poems by him. As far as I am concerned, Hardy can do no wrong. I am firmly in Philip Larkin's camp: ". . . may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?" Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic" (1966), in Required Writing (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174. Philip, may I make that "two readers at least"?

Thank you again for sharing both the poem and your thoughts. (You've now got me heading back to Hardy!) I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones.

Anonymous said...

Please enroll me among those who love Hardy's "Collected Poems". Last Thanksgiving I found my father's copy (bought in 1930. 90 years ago) in our family house in New Hampshire. I'm now reading through the section "Poems of the Past and the Present", one almost every day. I'm finding them fascinating. What a slyly funny man he was, as well as such a grave & thoughtful one. I particularly love "Winter in Durnover Field" and "The Ruined Maid" left me speechless.
Another comment -- I think Esther & I must have a literary childhood in common. I remember that we both expressed similar memories here once before, although I don't now remember the subject.
Have a peaceful and pleasant June, Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts, and for visiting.

In my view, you and Esther were fortunate to have been brought up in a much nobler time than my time (and a time light years away from what we have seen on display in recent years and days). At times I feel that I have had enough, and that I am ready to depart. But then I go for a walk, or read a poem.

Speaking of which, you and Mr. Floyd have sent me back to Thomas Hardy's poetry, for which I am grateful. Your description of him is perfect. He was indeed an extraordinary man. "Winter in Durnover Field" is one of my favorites as well. (But there are hundreds!) I decided to return to Late Lyrics and Earlier, published in 1922, when he was 82. I turned first to "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House," which is high on my list of favorites. But there are so many wonderful poems to choose from in just that one collection: "Going and Staying," "Weathers," "An Autumn Rain-Scene," "Just the Same," "The Sun's Last Look on the Country Girl," and that's only a start. Imagine him writing all those poems at that age. I don't know what I would do without him.

I wish you a wonderful June (and summer) as well. Take care.