Thursday, June 11, 2020


And so, dear readers, our eventful year continues.  I tell myself that I should keep my counsel as the arsonists, statue-topplers, building-defacers, and looters articulate their deeply-held convictions about how the rest of us ought to think, feel, and live.  Their actions speak for themselves.  No gloss is necessary.  Yet I will say that two words have been in my mind over the past week or so:  "emptiness" and "vacuity."  As well as this:  "They have inquired and considered little, and do not always feel their own ignorance.  They are not much accustomed to be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon interrogating themselves."  Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), page 272.

The evil and lack of human decency on display are nothing new, alas. They are part of human nature -- always have been, always will be. One chooses one's path.

                                The Nightjar

We loved our Nightjar, but she would not stay with us.
We had found her lying as dead, but soft and warm,
Under the apple tree beside the old thatched wall.
Two days we kept her in a basket by the fire,
Fed her, and thought she well might live -- till suddenly
In the very moment of most confiding hope
She raised herself all tense, quivered and drooped and died.
Tears sprang into my eyes -- why not? the heart of man
Soon sets itself to love a living companion,
The more so if by chance it asks some care of him.
And this one had the kind of loveliness that goes
Far deeper than the optic nerve -- full fathom five
To the soul's ocean cave, where Wonder and Reason
Tell their alternate dreams of how the world was made.
So wonderful she was -- her wings the wings of night
But powdered here and there with tiny golden clouds
And wave-line markings like sea-ripples on the sand.
O how I wish I might never forget that bird --
                    But even now, like all beauty of earth,
She is fading from me into the dusk of Time.

Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), A Perpetual Memory and Other Poems (John Murray 1939).

Herbert Hughes-Stanton (1870-1937)
"The Mill in the Valley" (1892)


Michael Hardt said...

That's a lovely poem. Thank you for sharing it. I'm happy to read your peaceful emails in these cacophonous times.

Sara Norman said...

I tell myself that I should keep my counsel as the arsonists, statue-topplers, building-defacers, and looters articulate their deeply-held convictions about how the rest of us ought to think, feel, and live.

Sadly this makes me very wary of following your blog. If this is all you can think to complain about you are a lucky man. Some people had no choice other than to be murdered because of the colour of their skin. How sad that your vision is so small that you focus instead on the inevitable outpouring of grief and impotent rage.

As writer of this sensitive blog I would have expected wisdom from you. I don't share your politics so i will now unsubscribe.

Tim Guirl said...

Stephen--Sam Johnson hits the nail on the head with surgical precision. Johnson, Montaigne and Pascal provide welcome sources of commonsense wisdom.

These are strange days indeed. Many of our connections, particularly the daily shepherding of two toddler grandchildren have been upended. That leaves us with more peace and quiet but less joy. This too shall pass.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hardt: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog.

It is a wonderful poem, isn't it? I remember my astonishment when I first came across it some years ago. It's not a poem one forgets, and I am delighted to find that you like it as well. Yes, the times are indeed cacophonous, and a poem such as this both reduces the noise and helps us to keep things in perspective.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: Yes, one could survive on a diet of Johnson, Montaigne and Pascal. As well as a few poets, of course! And, for me at least, Marcus Aurelius.

I know from your comments here over the years that you are not unacquainted with "strange days" and times, and have been through much more than I will ever go through. Thus, I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts. "This too shall pass." Something to bear in mind.

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by. It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Best wishes to you and your loved ones.

John Maruskin said...

Mr. Pentz, The pressure of the news aggravates me, too. I think you’re referring to protestors when you mention “arsonists, statue-topplers, building-defacers, and looters.” I have never advocated arson, defacing building (although I think many building deface the land they occupy), or looting. I have, though, advocated, statue removal for many years. For far too long we’ve brainwashed people to admire and emulate men who killed their kin in wars, subjected them to economic servitude with their greed and mania for power, and legislated in favor of their own interests instead of the “general welfare” that the Constitution admonishes us to promote.

Samuel Johnson’s quote is much more applicable to those “leaders and captains” who believe their wealth and power lend them immunity and impunity, both from the law and common decency, than they do to citizens who are outraged by the agents of that wealth and power literally having their knees on their necks until they’re dead.

Here’s what I think, and it’s just what I think. I gave up making generalizations. We (you and me) are caught in the ripples of cultural evolution. I think cultural evolution has, psychologically, so captivated, even worse, because of advertising, so brainwashed people that yes, they have become vacuous and empty, and they fill that emptiness with the glamour of riot. Because they’ve been taught that war, aggression, egotistical power, which was the hallmark of most of the people depicted in statues, is the way to act.

I have friends who spend their lives eradicating honeysuckle. I kid them by saying: “Honeysuckle is an invasive species…says the species which created the interstate highway system.”

The aggravation and discomfort we feel, I think, comes from our sense that real evolution is Natural, and that we, as all of your poets so elegantly attest, are leaves on the stream.

I take consolation, these days, in the butterfly anecdote of Chaos theory. That a butterfly flapping its wings in China is the source of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico some months later. With that in mind, I reckon the fritillaries and Sulphur moths in the meadow behind my house have more effect on the future than the government or its dissidents.

Nevertheless, when I see one human being with their knee on the throat of another being choked to death, I say, stop! You would have to have a mind, not only of winter, but of the ice around Satan’s ass not to.

The old frog
jumps in the pond

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Norman: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I wish you well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: Thank you very much for sharing your observations, which, as always, are thoughtful and articulate. I respectfully disagree with a number of those observations (beginning with your suggestion that we are "caught in the ripples of cultural evolution"). I am a lawyer by trade (for 36 years now), and the lawyer side of me is entreating me to respond in detail. But Henry Newbolt and the nightjar counsel otherwise, and they are absolutely correct.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. Take care.

John Maruskin said...

Mr. Pentz, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts. I don't know that I'm right about the things I say. I always enjoy discussing ideas in hope of better understanding other points of view and refining my own. I quit being dogmatic about twenty years ago. I was missing too much and acting foolish. Please feel free to respond to my email address (I think it is attached to my comments, or I will be glad to send it to you) if you'd rather not carry on the discussion in this forum. I truly enjoy your posts and I respect your opinion. On the other hand, if you'd just rather not, I look forward to the next poems. Have a wonderful week, JM

Anonymous said...

Agree with everything Sara Norman said. It's one thing to have said nothing. Your choice of focus tells much. I unsubscribe reluctantly, having enjoyed this blog for many years. I see now that it is time for me to listen and learn from other points of view.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I wish you well.

David said...

May I thank you, Mr Pentz, for introducing me to this wonderful poem. In a world riven by discord it is a delight to find common ground in gems such as this. Beneath the clash of political opinions we can still, it seems, recognise our common humanity through one man's encounter with a nightjar.

In my own country, the UK, nightjars are sadly becoming very scarce but it appears that people are more readily roused by statues than birds. Indeed, our elected representatives are now considering legislation that would suggest we care more for inanimate objects than living people. I think it was Rousseau who said that abstract ideas are the source of the greatest errors of mankind. Nightjars, like human suffering, bring us back to earth, where we belong.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: I appreciate your thoughtful response. As to me sharing my thoughts on your observations in your original comment, I'd prefer to stick with poetry -- I am spending time with Po Chü-i and Ryōkan now, and, like Henry Newbolt and the nightjar, their recommendation to me is to hold my tongue. That being said, I do thank you for your civil and good-hearted reply. (By the way, your email address is not attached to your comment. You are always welcome to contact me at the email address which appears on the blog, if you wish.) Take care.

Wurmbrand said...

Excellent quotation from Dr. Johnson.

I trust that the looting and burning are committed by a small number out of the total number of people on the street (in a time of epidemic --!!). But I'm dismayed by the relevance of Johnson's remark to a much greater number of people. Mass demonstration is not how we can "have the conversation" on "race" that, it's been often said, is needed. When I see the impassioned faces, the slogans, the gestures, the categorization of people (e.g. police) that go on, I cannot be optimistic about the possibility of "conversation." What I see is performance and the evident conviction that the performers feel they are righteous.

by Les Murray [Australian poet, 1938-2019]
No. Not from me. Never.
Not a step in your march.
not a vowel in your unison,
bray that shifts to bay.
Banners sailing a street river,
power in advance of a vote,
go choke on these quatrain tablets.
I grant you no claim ever,
not if you pushed the Christ Child
as President of Rock Candy Mountain
or yowled for the found Elixir
would your caste expectations snare me.
Superhuman with accusation,
you would conscript me to a world
of people spat on, people hiding
ahead of oncoming poetry.
Whatever class is your screen
I’m from several lower,
To your rigged fashions, I’m pariah.
Nothing a mob does is clean,
not at first, not when slowed to a media,
not when police. The first demos I saw,
before placards, were against me,
alone, for two years, with chants,
every day, with half-conciliatory
needling in between, and aloof
moral cowardice holding skirts away.
I learned your world order then.

I've written a political comment, but I hope that, as a rule, when I turn to this blog, I will find it to be occupied with other things, like the nightjar. It's a good place for me to come to, where there is the fresh breeze of the centuries blowing through opened windows (to paraphrase something C. S. Lewis said somewhere).

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I'm delighted you like "The Nightjar." As you have perceived, I did not select it by happenstance. I have lived with it inside me for many years, and it has appeared here in the past. I wholly agree that "The Nightjar," and, most importantly, a single nightjar in all its singularity, "bring us back to earth, where we belong." Thank you again. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: First and foremost, I owe you an apology for the inexcusable delay in posting, and responding to, your comment. I have had to put on my lawyer's hat for the past ten days or so, and have been away from the blog, other than to make a brief post last Saturday. I'm very sorry for the delay.

There is no need to be in any way apologetic for making "a political comment": after all, I started this foray into current events. "Demo" is perfectly apt: I haven't seen it before, and I'm pleased you shared it. I have TV memories of what went on in the Sixties, and what we are seeing now is, alas, timeless. Mr. Murray hits the nail on the head. And I wholly agree with your sentiments as well.

But, as you suggest in your final paragraph, it is best to leave these things be. C. S. Lewis is, not unexpectedly, absolutely correct, and I thank you for sharing his thought. This is why, as I noted in my response above to Mr. Maruskin's comment, I have been spending time lately with Ryōkan and Po Chü-i. I need to heed my own counsel, which I have expressed here on more than one occasion in the past: we live in a politicized culture, and I do not wish to have anything to do with it. Life is too short.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting. And, again, I apologize for the delay.

Wurmbrand said...

Mr. Pentz, yes; how many of us, when we are lying in the beds in which we will die, will be tormented by the realization, too late, that we didn't spend enough time on political blogs, enough time hollering with mobs, enough time viewing infomercials? But how many of us will, rather, regret that we let our consciousness be fixed on just such things by distant manipulators who know and care nothing of us, when we could have attended instead to that which was right before us (friends, neighbors, the owl that hoots at 2:00 a.m., the constellations) and (I would say) to the Creator of all things visible and invisible?

It really is not the case that there will always be time for us to get around to those latter things while, right now, we occupy our minds with the foolishness of mobs and demagogues -- with ugliness and things of superficial appeal that we can see through easily enough if we shake off sloth. (It is a curious thing, how much of the "activism" of our time as well as other habits typical thereof, betrays sloth -- unwillingness to make the effort to see what's obvious -- !)

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for those follow-up thoughts. I completely agree with everything you say.

Regarding the distractions that surround us: I sometimes feel like Al Pacino/Michael Corleone in "The Godfather, Part III": "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" And I smile ruefully. One does one's best to steer clear of the distractions, and then inadvertently something pops up on the internet without your asking to see it, or you walk past a newspaper box and see a headline out of the corner of your eye. I sometimes think the only solution is to head for the hills. Or become a stylite. "Happy were he could finish forth his fate/In some unhaunted desert." But poetry does the trick as well. I agree that we need to "shake off sloth." Our current "culture" is constructed upon it. But don't get me started.

As ever, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Take care.

Wurmbrand said...

Mr. Pentz, an Australian friend of mine recently sent me a prose passage written by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore. It needs to be read with discernment; by the undiscerning it will be taken as nothing but a call to self-indulgence, but that's not what it is. But let the reader understand.

"To know one's own business, with quiet persistence to forward it, and to mind nothing else: that is the true way to carry on the work of life. This sounds like a truism; yet few really acknowledge it, even in principle. It is not often that even the first step— that of knowing what one's business is—is conscientiously taken; and it must be allowed that, with many, there are intellectual as well as moral difficulties in the way of this first step. The easiest mode of getting rid of the intellectual difficulty is for a man to ask himself what is not his business; and many a well-disposed person may be surprised to find, on requiring a strict reply from his understanding, that he has been in the habit of considering it a virtue to waste time, thought, feeling, and other means that have been given him for the better doing of his own business, on interests which truly are no business of his at all."

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Wonderful! The passage is new to me, and I thank you very much for sharing it. He puts it perfectly: "To know one's own business . . . that is the true way to carry on the work of life." Exactly. But the entire passage is marvelous. I agree with you completely: Patmore's observation is most certainly NOT "a call to self-indulgence." The world has always been plagued with busybodies of one sort or another, and we certainly have our own set of them now.

The closing lines of Patmore's best-known poem seem apt: "When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;/The truth is great, and shall prevail,/When none cares whether it prevail or not."

Thank you again for taking the time to share this.