Thursday, August 20, 2020

Three Thoughts

I return often to the poetry of Walter de la Mare.  As is the case with all the poets of whom I am fond, I go there in search of Beauty and Truth.  But, when it comes to de la Mare, I also go because of his common sense, equanimity, wisdom, and goodwill.  His essential humanity is a wonderful thing to experience, and to learn from.  How I feel about him is captured quite well by one of his poems:


Beauty, and grace, and wit are rare;
     And even intelligence:
But lovelier than hawthorn seen in May,
Or mistletoe berries on Innocent's Day
The face that, open as heaven, doth wear --
With kindness for its sunshine there --
     Good nature and good sense.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Revisiting his poetry over the past few weeks, I noticed these qualities more acutely.  I suspect this is due to the contrast between the humanity one finds in de la Mare and his poems and the unedifying spectacle we have been witnessing the past few months, which is the antithesis of all that is embodied in his life and art.

Looking for old favorites, I came upon this:

Ah, Stranger, breathe a sigh:
     For, where I lie,
Is but a handful of bright Beauty cast:
     It was; and now is past.

Walter de la Mare, The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (Faber and Faber 1969).

David Muirhead (1867-1930), "English Landscape"

"A handful of bright Beauty."  How lovely.  When it comes to poetry, one thing leads to another, doesn't it?  Something floated to mind.  So I took one of Norman Ault's fine anthologies down from the shelf and turned the pages to this:

     An Epitaph for a Godly Man's Tomb

Here lies a piece of Christ; a star in dust;
A vein of gold; a china dish that must
Be used in heaven, when God shall feast the just.

Robert Wild (1609-1679), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics from the Original Texts (Longmans, Green & Co. 1928).  The poem was first published in 1668.

I am no doubt getting old and cranky, but the 17th century seems like a seemly and hospitable place to me these days.  Does one reach a point in life where one feels that one has had enough, that it is now time to depart?  "But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods."  A different century, a different set of gods, yes.  And yet . . .

David Muirhead, "Woodland Scene" (1918)

"A star in dust."  Another lovely thought.  Another stepping stone.  I went to another shelf and sought out this:

What is Death?  A Life
disintegrating into
smaller simpler ones.

W. H. Auden, from the sequence "Shorts II," in Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1976).

"A handful of bright Beauty."  "A star in dust."  "A Life/disintegrating into/smaller simpler ones."  Three thoughts randomly and unexpectedly coming together.  I do not place them here in an attempt at edification.  (The last thing I am in need of at the present time is unasked-for edification, thank you.  Thus, have no fear, dear readers, I am not a member of the edification police.)  As I have said here before, I am easy to please.  This is nothing more than a report on how I spent an evening.  Frolic and detour.

David Muirhead, "A Lowland Landscape"

I did not begin my evening expecting to have these three poems reappear.  But this is the way poetry works.  A poem that touches us never vanishes.  Who knows when it will return?  

One day an unbidden gift unaccountably arrives at our doorstep. Where did this come from?  One thing leads to another.

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes --
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), p. 443.

David Muirhead, "The Avenue" (1901)


Esther said...

An Epitaph for a Godly Man's Tomb brings to mind a poem I remember reading in, I believe, Malcolm, by George MacDonald.

"Cup of my soul
Gold, diamond, and ruby cup
Thou art nothing but a tomb-dry bowl
Till the wine of the kingdom fill thee up"

The poem at the end was lovely, too. Every year at the end of cherry blossom season, I can count on finding a blown petal or two when I step out onto my balcony, though no trees are in sight.

I like what Walter de la Mare once said about only the rarest and best form of anything ever being good enough for a child.

And "unedifying spectacle" is a great turn of phrase!

Too hot to sleep in Tokyo tonight, I was glad to find your welcome new post. By the way, I saw you got a well-deserved compliment on Nigeness the other day!

Deborah Vass said...

Thank you for the comfort and wisdom of Walter de la Mare and for introducing me to the wonderful paintings of David Muirhead. I am very glad to be one of the readers of your detour.

Anonymous said...

This—is the land—the Sunset washes—
These—are the Banks of the Yellow Sea—
Where it rose—or whither it rushes—
These—are the Western Mystery!

Night after Night
Her purple traffic
Strews the landing with Opal Bales—
Merchantmen—poise upon Horizons—
Dip—and vanish like Orioles!
E. Dickinson

Ah, Mr. Pentz, how these August sunsets strew the sky with their purple traffic, the opal bales lying indolent about the heavens. I watch, and I think I see a '[F]at cat, red tongue, green mind" in the green grass of August, the last light like a bracelet around the hedge that hides "the king of the ghosts." The fat cat disappears into the raveling grass and you and I and the rabbit "are humped high" at eventide, all so still we are a tableau, where all is silent except for time sighing.

Ah, Mr. Pentz,

gretchenjoanna said...

Thank you for sharing the confluence of still-flowing poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Here I am again, this time thanking you for your most recent comment.

MacDonald's poem is quite reminiscent of Wild's poem, isn't it? The "china dish that must/Be used in Heaven" and the "cup of my soul" that can only be filled in Heaven. A lovely coincidence.

That's nice to hear: you have lived Kyoshi's haiku! I'm quite fond of that poem.

Carter provides a romaji transcription of the poems he translates, so I learned a new Japanese word when I first came across the haiku: nure-en, which then led me to engawa. As I think I've told you, I lived in Tokyo for a year, and have visited Japan several times. Thus, I'm familiar with Japanese architectural details, yet I never knew the name. (By the way, Carter gives this as the romaji transcription of the haiku: nure'en ni/izuku to mo naki/rakka kana. As you likely know, R. H. Blyth does this with his translations as well, but he also provides the kanji and hiragana original text, which is nice. This sort of thing helps me retain some of my extremely rudimentary Japanese vocabulary.)

Speaking of Tokyo, I remember the heat of August quite well. But your comment made me think longingly of the semis crying in the trees, and of fireflies along the rivers.

Again, thank you very much for stopping by, and for your kind words about the post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Vass: It's very nice to hear from you again. I appreciate your kind words about the post. Thank you.

I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed both de la Mare's poems and Muirhead's paintings. Both of them are a welcome respite from the times we find ourselves in. Providers of perspective. Reminders of what is important.

Thank you very much for your long-time presence here, which I greatly value. I hope that all is well. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your lovely meditation on August, as well as for the wonderful juxtaposition of poems. I recently read something in which the author (I forget who) remarked that Dickinson and Whitman were the only two great American poets of the 19th century. I mention this because I thought of Whitman when I read Dickinson's poem (which is new to me). Perhaps it is the nautical imagery, or the phrase "the Western Mystery." But it is probably more than that: the sense of openness and possibility, perhaps. But I need to put a stop to this wordiness, mindful of my second poetic principle: "explanation and explication are the death of poetry." I should let the poem be what it is.

As for "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts": I think of it as my "August poem," and it has appeared here on more than one occasion in August, so I thank you very much for sharing parts of it now. (And you have reminded me that I have yet to visit it this month, which I will now do.) "August the most peaceful month." Is this so? I don't know. Your phrase "time sighing" is a fine one, for just this week I noticed (as one always does towards the middle of August) a change in the angle of light, a slight lengthening of shadows, a bit of deepening in the blue of the sky, and a few dry leaves falling. "Time sighing."

Again, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for sharing Dickinson and Stevens.

Thomas Parker said...

I know little of de la Mare's poetry; I am more familiar with his prose, which seems to exhibit most of the same graceful and elegant qualities as his verse.

Another poet, Randall Jarrell, echoed your contrast between the current chaotic age (and there is a difference between ages which had to deal with the inevitable chaos that comes with life and an age which seems to love chaos for its own sake) and the past, in this case the 18th century:

"Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything that the eighteenth century didn’t know, and nothing that it did, and it will be hard to live with us."

The only part of that I disagree with is "most of us know" which seems overly optimistic, especially these days. But for the rest, our willful forgetting certainly has made it hard to live with us! I know that I greatly appreciate a "place" like this, where peace and beauty - and just plain sanity - are cultivated.

Stephen Pentz said...

Gretchenjoannna: It's great to hear from you again.

"The confluence of still-flowing poems" is a fine phrase. Thank you for that. I don't know what I would do without that "confluence," and that "flow," particularly in a year such as this.

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by. It's nice to know you are still visiting, which I greatly appreciate. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: That's a wonderful statement by Jarrell, isn't it? I had forgotten about it, so I greatly appreciate your sharing it here. It was true when he wrote it in 1953, and it is just as true today, isn't it? As you suggest, all we have to do is look around. I agree with your thought about "most of us know" being "overly optimistic."

Finally, thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I can only hope that what you say is the case. But, as I have done before, I must state that I am only the messenger, and we must thank the poets and painters for any peace, beauty, and sanity that finds its way here.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts once again.

Anthony Hill said...

Thank you for your lovely blog. I have found you recently via A Clerk of Oxford. I would like you to know that your postings are a serious consolation to those of us who are uneasy. I suppose we're all uneasy. Anyway, you produce holy moments.

Unknown said...

I have enjoyed reading your blog which I do very often as well as the blogs you follow.

I too love Walter de la Mare. The Listeners for example is a perfect poem. I often recite it to myself either for pleasure or distraction eg when a doctor in removing a dressing from a scar uncovered unshaven beard and proceeded to dry shave me - a most painful process! The listeners got me through it and The Epitaph on a West Country Lady although that is a little sad. My school English teacher, now long dead, told me he used to recite Lycidas to distract himself while on parade.

Incidentally I am not sure I would agree that the seventeenth century was "seemly and hospitable". A period of great art,poetry,architecture- a Golden Age or was it the Iron Century (Henry Kamen) with The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, The Century of the Soldier (Falvio Testir) and The Litle Ice Age!

Perhaps, though, terrible events (interesting times?) are a accompanied by great creativity and with reserves of tranquillity. I am sure you would say that there would be flowers and butterflies whatever humanity was up to!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hill: That's extremely nice of you to say. Thank you very much. However, as I have noted in the past, all of the credit for what I post here goes to the poets and the painters: I am merely the messenger. That being said, because the things I share are things I love, I am always gratified and humbled to find that they may resonate with others as well, and make their way further into the world, which has always been my goal. As you say, they provide "consolation" in these times, and remind us of what is good and enduring in humanity. Perspective is needed.

Again, I greatly appreciate your kind words. I'm pleased you found your way here via A Clerk of Oxford (a wonderful blog), and I hope you will return.

Stephen Pentz said...

Unknown: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog.

Yes, de la Mare's poetry is both wonderful and memorable, isn't it? Many of his poems are the sort that one naturally commits to memory, aren't they? Your mentioning of his epitaph on "the lady of the West Country" is timely: I recently revisited another fine epitaph of his which shares a similar theme, and which I'm sure you know:

Last, Stone, a little yet;
And then this dust forget.
But thou, fair Rose, bloom on.
For she who is gone
Was lovely too; nor would she grieve to be
Sharing in solitude her dreams with thee.

He was quite good at epitaphs, wasn't he? And there are so many of them among his poems. (Not to mention Ding Dong Bell, which consists entirely of epitaphs.) But Death is one of his recurring subjects, isn't it?

As for my remark about the 17th century being "seemly and hospitable": your point is well taken. In fact, while writing the post, I paused over "seemly and hospitable" and thought to myself: "But what about the beheading of Charles I, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Years' War?" But then I thought of Robert Herrick and Henry Vaughan, and decided that we have nothing of their like. So I stayed with "seemly and hospitable."

I completely agree with your closing two sentences. They embody what I feel every time I go out into the World for a walk.

Thank you again for the kind words, and for sharing your thoughts.