Saturday, July 18, 2020

Near and Far

I find this to be an accurate and reasonable assessment of the present age:

"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."

And this, it seems to me, is a sound response to our distempered and unseemly contemporary world:

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

I suspect that many of you will have noticed that the two quoted passages come, not from our own time, but from the past.  The first passage is 218 years old: it appears in William Wordsworth's preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads.  The second passage is 117 years old: it is from George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which was published in 1903.  Hence, pick your truism. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Or, if you prefer: There is nothing new under the sun.

Roger Fry (1886-1934), "Village in the Valley" (1926)

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses:/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream." Yesterday, while driving in my car, I heard Glen Campbell sing "Gentle on My Mind."  1967.  Ah, well.  All those years.  I was born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Of history and its events, what remains for me is the death of President Kennedy (our elementary school principal announced it over the public address system on a sunny afternoon), the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and 9/11.  Unexpectedly hearing "Gentle on My Mind" on the car radio on an ordinary July afternoon.  How many times have I heard that song?  Where was I each time I heard it?  Who was I with?  What has become of them?  One song.  An entire lifetime returns.  History vanishes.

        Rising from My Sickbed

Alone and ill, I was confined to bed
But my dreams kept returning to my old haunts
This morning, at last, I managed to rise and
     stand beside the river
An endless trail of peach petals
     drifting down the stream

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel), in Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings (University of Hawai'i Press 1996), page 123.

James Prowett (1865-1946), "Cruive Dykes, Craigforth" 

Is it inevitably the case that, as one grows older, the world of human affairs takes on an alien aspect, while the World of beautiful particulars becomes ever more hospitable?  On the other hand, one might arrive at that feeling at a young age, and find its truth confirmed by life.  Either way, there is indeed something to be said for possessing one's soul in quiet, for living "in thoughtful stillness," for having no part in the "increasing clamour." 

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
     In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
     Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
     Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
     And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601), in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (Oxford University Press 1932).  The poem is untitled.

Percy Horton (1897-1970), "A Corner of Ambleside" (1943)

Sunday, July 5, 2020

How To Live, Part Twenty-Nine: Some Things Never Change

I am easy to please.  Each summer, I take delight in watching the tree tunnels I love further deepen, further interlace, as the boughs extend themselves outwards and upwards.  I notice the empty spaces that remain high up in the green and restless canopy, the sky that remains open, and I wonder how many years will pass before new bridges of leaves arch overhead.  Will I be here to see it happen?  Perhaps not. After all, I am merely an onlooker, passing through.  This is neither a lament nor a complaint.  To be aware that one is part of an ever-changing yet timeless World is a source of serenity.

                      The Truisms

His father gave him a box of truisms
Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
Or that other his father skulked inside.

Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
He could not remember seeing before.

And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
And something told him the way to behave.
He raised his hand and blessed his home;
The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
And a tall tree sprouted from his father's grave.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (Faber and Faber 1961).

As is often the case with MacNeice, there is an undertone of ironic knowingness present in "The Truisms," but I am willing to take the poem at face value.  As I have noted here before, I am quite content to live my life in accordance with certain truisms because, well, they are true.

Joshua Anderson Hague (1850-1916), "Landscape in North Wales"

Given the clamor of catastrophe and crisis we human beings are so fond of (2020 is no different than any other year in the history of humanity in this regard), an awareness of the World's continuity is not a bad thing.  It's not as if the World hasn't seen it all before.  Each of us has seen it all before as well, unless we haven't been awake.  

"Whoever lives two or three generations feels like the spectator who, during the fair, sees the performances of all kinds of jugglers and, if he remains seated in the booth, sees them repeated two or three times.  As the tricks were meant only for one performance, they no longer make any impression after the illusion and novelty have vanished."

Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World," in Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, Volume 2 (1851; Oxford University Press 1974), page 299.


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

Joshua Anderson Hague, "Late Autumn"

In January of 2019, I wrote here about the falling of a nearby big-leaf maple in a winter storm.  Yesterday afternoon, I walked past the space it once occupied.  I still feel the loss.  But its companions remain, and I know that in time the emptiness of the air will be filled.

                 Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year,  making the same sound.

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (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 336.

Joshua Anderson Hague, "Haymaking"