Saturday, September 19, 2020


For most of the past week the foghorns of the ships out on Puget Sound have been blowing day and night.  Not on account of any fog banks, but in order to make their way safely through the wildfire smoke enveloping sky and water and earth.  Centuries ago, an event such as this might have called for a sacrifice to the gods in order to avert an impending apocalypse.  Or prompted a hurried journey to the oracle at Delphi for a quick consultation.  We moderns, emptied of enchantment, politicize events of this sort.  Oh, how I long for the gods and the oracles.

It is enough to drive one into the arms of Giacomo Leopardi for relief: "What is life?  The journey of a crippled and sick man walking with a heavy load on his back up steep mountains and through wild, rugged, arduous places, in snow, ice, rain, wind, burning sun, for many days without ever resting night and day to end at a precipice or ditch, in which inevitably he falls."  (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, pages 4162-4163 (January 17, 1826) (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1809.)

Or, alternatively, one can pay a visit to Leopardi's soulmate, the always antic Arthur Schopenhauer:  "Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness."  (Arthur Schopenhauer, "On the Vanity and Suffering of Life," in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II (1844) (translated by E. F. J. Payne) (The Falcon's Wing Press 1958), page 573.)  Schopenhauer wrote of Leopardi:  "[E]verywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence.  He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect."  (Ibid, page 588.)  Two peas in a pod.

But I'm afraid Leopardi and Schopenhauer simply won't do.  As entertaining as they are (their harrowing doom shot through with truth, and so unremittingly dire that one cannot help but smile), I have continued to spend most of my time with Walter de la Mare and the Japanese poets.  Calmness and equanimity.  A few days ago, I read this:

                  The Last Chapter

I am living more alone now than I did;
This life tends inward, as the body ages;
And what is left of its strange book to read 
Quickens in interest with the last few pages.

Problems abound.  Its authorship?  A sequel?
Its hero-villain, whose ways so little mend?
The plot? still dark.  The style? a shade unequal.
And what of the dénouement?  And, the end?

No, no, have done!  Lay the thumbed thing aside;
Forget its horrors, folly, incitements, lies;
In silence and in solitude abide,
And con what yet may bless your inward eyes.

Pace, still, for pace with you, companion goes,
Though now, through dulled and inattentive ear,
No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows
His infinite energy and beauty near.

His, too, a World, though viewless save in glimpse;
He, too, a book of imagery bears;
And, as your halting foot beside him limps,
Mark you whose badge and livery he wears.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958)
"A Derbyshire Farmstead" (c. 1933-1934)

Who, then, is this "companion" keeping pace with de la Mare?  His poetry is full of such secret sharers:  shadows, strangers, wayfarers, wraiths, ghosts.  I am content to leave the question unanswered, but I have inklings.

                         Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
     Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
     This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

"The man whom I must get to know."  This brings to mind the purported death-bed poem of the Emperor Hadrian, which begins: animula vagula blandula.  The poem has been translated many times.  Here is Matthew Prior's version:

Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly
     Lies all neglected, all forgot:
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (1709).

Finally, I cannot forbear bringing in Marcus Aurelius: "You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse, as Epictetus used to say." Marcus Aurelius (translated by W. A. Oldfather), Meditations, Book IV, Section 41.  

These are things we each must puzzle out in our own solitude. Hence, dear readers, please feel free to ignore my meanderings.  I am willing to leave de la Mare's "companion" a mystery.  Which is what the World is, what our life is, as de la Mare so often reminds us in his poems.  Which is what we are to ourselves?

Harry Epworth Allen, "Summer" (1940)

"The Last Chapter" was published when de la Mare was 65 years old. Yet, despite its self-elegiac subject matter and tone, he lived another eighteen years, and never lost his love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  In the year prior to his death, he said to a visitor: "My days are getting shorter.  But there is more and more magic.  More than in all poetry.  Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 443.)  The plea to us to love the World while we can is a constant refrain in his poetry.  It appears in what are perhaps his best-known lines: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour.

He reminds us once more in his final volume of poems, published when he was in his eightieth year:


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).

Perhaps de la Mare sold himself short in the lines from "The Last Chapter" about his "companion": "No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows/His infinite energy and beauty near."  The poetry he wrote before and after these lines belies this thought: I find no waning of energy or beauty in de la Mare from beginning to end. Thoughts such as those in "The Last Chapter" inevitably come and go as one ages.  But I do not think de la Mare ever lost his passion for the World.  He gently but firmly reminds us again and again to love, to pay attention to, and to be grateful for what is before us Now.

Harry Epworth Allen, "The Road to the Hills"


Michael Hardt said...

Thanks again for introducing a new poet into my life. The name of Walter de la Mare is familiar, but I didn't know his poems. Now I will seek out some of his fiction.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hardt: You're welcome. As you can tell, I am fond of his poetry, and I am pleased and gratified that it may resonate with you as well. You have a great deal of pleasure (and beauty and wisdom) in store for you. I confess that my knowledge of de la Mare's fiction is quite limited, since I have focused my attention on the large amount of poetry he wrote. It is my understanding that his short stories of the "uncanny" are highly regarded.

Thank you very much for visiting again. Happy reading!

Esther said...

" your halting foot beside him limps...." brings to mind another line about an invisible companion--"Halts by me that footfall...." from Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven. Spine-tingling in a good way!

"The Road to the Hills" looks exactly like a road I once walked at 2 a.m. on a moonlit night in Scotland. Among the sheep to my right was one that was turning around and around and around under the full moon. To this day, I do not know what it was up to. It is one of those things I am willing, as you say, to leave a mystery. :)

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you for sharing the line from Thompson: it fits here perfectly. I had never read that poem, but now I have done so after receiving your comment. Wonderful. Yes, "spine-tingling in a good way." The final line is beautiful: "Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me." (I like his use of archaisms throughout the poem.)

Thank you as well for sharing your anecdote of Scotland. One never knows what one will come across on a walk!

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Thomas Parker said...

Truly, life has more of beauty and ugliness in it than we can carry in our small hands, so why not hold onto only the beautiful? Every unworthy thing we carry leaves less room for the worthy, and the quality of our lives - the only ones we have - will be determined by the choice. I recently came across a poem by R.S. Thomas, a poet I had not read before, that reminded me of that freedom to focus on what I will:

A Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

So much of a day's quality rests on what we choose to look at as we pass through it, doesn't it? If there's one thing the past few years have taught me, that's it. Still working on it, of course!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts. I completely agree. "Every unworthy thing we carry leaves less room for the worthy, and the quality of our lives -- the only ones we have -- will be determined by the choice." Well said, and so true.

I'm delighted that you shared "The Bright Field" to complement your thoughts: it is one of my favorite poems. I just checked, and it has appeared here six times since I began this blog 10 years ago. In fact, it appeared recently in my post on March 28 of this year. In that post, I paired it with another poem by Thomas, which I think also complements your thoughts:


Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (1986).

Of course, as you say, we are forever "working on it." But the first step is to be aware of the choice we have.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

Bruce said...

Dear Steve,

In my part of the country (northeastern South Carolina), we, here on or near the date when fall arrives, have our first signs of autumn. It is cool outside, the temperature about seventy degrees. A brisk breeze has scoured clouds from the sky. Summer has, though it may resurrect itself for a short time, gone and, for us who do not favor the heat and humidity of the oppressive Southern summer, it's a time for rejoicing. Golden autumn, polychromatic slayer of vernal and indolent summer, has come. The signs are everywhere My joy at the transition, heard by my fellows, will label me an iconoclast, if not a heretic. I am always surprised when people I know say, "It can't get too hot for me." Well, it can for me, and I dread the hot, humid days of summer, made endurable to me only by the magic of air conditioning. It's only fair to admit that for the most part our falls and winters are mild, the seasons when we have, to me at least, our best weather.

I mentioned our mild winters only because I understand that people who live "up north" suffer from dreadful winters, days of extreme cold and copious snow fall. I don't think we have any substantial snowfall--say more than an inch or so--in years. Of course an inch of snow shuts down everything, and Yankees make sport of us.

So, when I rejoice at the departure of summer, Emily Dickinson mourned its exist. Without a doubt she adored the colorful arrival of fall, the kaleidoscope of the leaves, running the gamut of colors (she relished the wonder of Indian Summer), but she never forgot that the arrival of fall, a short respite between her glorious New England summers and its brutal winters, portended the inevitable dismal time. She calls the snow and the wind "brooms of steel."

I've always enjoyed the below poem by her. She's right to note that summer lapses away "imperceptibly." My wife and I walk our two little dogs every evening at 7:15, and for the longest time over the summer, when the sun set at 8;30, we walked in light. It sounds a bit absurd, but it's true that just a few days ago I noticed that the days had grown considerably shorter. The sun sets these days about 7:20. How could I move from full illumination to eventide and seem not to notice? I did not, however, notice. My God, I thought, summer is gone, and, Keats's and Stevens's autumn has arrived, fat august immured in its grave, the poor thing fallen from somnolent ripeness while October preens for her arrival in a little over a week. Time grinds on its inexorable axle, indifferent to human sensibility that weeps and sings the going and the coming of the seasons, a self-conscious mind understanding with biting clarity that it is not only the seasons that come and go. We chart our future on the tumbling of the seasons, ink in our fates.

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away -
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy-
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon -
The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts on the change of the seasons, and how our lives are bound up in that change. As you wonderfully show, the change is intertwined with beauty, and reminds us of our fate. Which is no cause for melancholy, just how it is. Moreover, we know what Stevens says about death and beauty, don't we?

And, as ever, thank you for sharing another fine, and apt, poem by Dickinson. As you say, her focus on summer's "imperceptible" departure at the beginning is nice, although, as you suggest, at some point in September, it often seems like summer disappears in a rush. As de la Mare has it: "Dwindles away/To its last rose,/Its narrowest day." The way she closes the poem is lovely: "Our Summer made her light escape/Into the Beautiful." Beauty following upon beauty, never ending (whether we are here or not.)

Again, thank you very much. It's always good to hear from you.

Tom Collen said...

"So much of a day's quality rests on what we choose to look at as we pass through it"

Beautiful and true. Thanks

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Collen: Yes, Mr. Parker's observation is wonderful, isn't it? I am very fortunate to have such thoughtful readers: I am always learning something, for which I am grateful.

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

In my Emily Dickinson collection, "Final Harvest", I have written under the poem Bruce sent, "As imperceptibly as Grief", "This is one of the loveliest poems ever written", & the dates September 23 2016, October 7 2017, October 2 2019.
I'm now going to add, "And one of the truest" with today's date.
Your blog seems more indispensable now than it ever has, Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm delighted to hear from you. Thank you very much for your kind words.

It's wonderful that you and Bruce are both so well-acquainted with Dickinson's poem. (As I said above in response to Mr. Collen's comment: "I am very fortunate to have such thoughtful readers." I have learned a great deal from you and Bruce over the years.) I keep track of when I visit poems as well, and I love the fact that you return to Dickinson's poem in autumn. It's wonderful to have these touchstones to return to, isn't it?

Your addition ("And one of the truest") to your prior note on the poem is perfect: one of the loveliest and one of the truest. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." I fear that Keats' lines are regarded askance by (or are unknown to) most ironic moderns. I'm old-fashioned: I've always regarded them as words to live by. We certainly need them more than ever at the present time, don't we?

I hope that all is well with you, and that you are able to get out to your favorite parks and gardens this autumn (or perhaps to New Hampshire?). I wish you all the best. Take care.

nikki said...

Rendingly beautiful.

Stephen Pentz said...

nikki: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you. As ever, thank you for visiting.