Monday, January 11, 2021


As I have remarked here in the past, the feeling that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket is a timeless feature of human nature. The world has always been, and will always be, going to Hell in a hand-basket.  Still, one pauses: after all, there was someone living an ordinary life in Rome when it was sacked by the barbarians.  It's a matter of timing.  You never know what you're in for.

                                 To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

Thus wrote MacNeice sixty-four years ago.  He was not wrong. Moreover, as I have noted here on several occasions, Wordsworth was not wrong in his preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

"[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."  

Hence, the theme is not new.  Only the technology changes.  So here we are again.  But all is not lost.  Some of us continue to love, and attempt to preserve, what Wordsworth and MacNeice loved (and feared for).  Yet at times one does think of the Roman living contentedly, going about his or her daily business, seeing dust on the horizon, having never heard of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals.

William Rothenstein (1872-1945)
"Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (c. 1925)

I try to keep things in perspective, but since 1968 (the year of the White Album, a memorable World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and nothing else good) I have been of the opinion that the world (as distinguished from the World) is indeed going to Hell in a hand-basket.  However, don't mind me: I suspect I had the same feeling as I emerged bawling from the womb, gasping for air, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Withal, come what may, I have remained quite cheerful.  I simply step outside and take a look around at the World and its beautiful particulars.  How can one be anything but astonished and grateful?

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company 1928).

William Rothenstein, "St Martin's Summer"

Nevertheless, one cannot help but take notice of certain things.  Of things that have permanently vanished.  Of irreplaceable things, now broken, that appear to be irreparable.  There's no help for it.  One does notice.  Is this merely a product of growing older, of feeling that it is time to leave the stage, an outdated relic?  Perhaps.  But that denizen of Rome haunts me.

Suddenly, another Roman arrives to remind me:

"If, I say, you separate from the governing principle within you those things which are, as it were, appended to it by its vehement passions, and the times past and future, you make yourself like the firm World of Empedocles, A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy.  Be solicitous only to live well for the present; and you may go on till death, to spend what remains of life, with tranquillity, with true dignity, and complacence with the divinity within you."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Life is ever a matter of attention and gratitude, don't you think?

   On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2 (Columbia University Press  1976), page 27.

William Rothenstein, "Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (1933)


John Maruskin said...

Stephen, My latest haiku. Written 1/8/21

I pledge allegiance
to chickadees sipping at
the backyard birdbath

"A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy." That may well become my motto for 2021.

Thanks, John

PS You don't have to post my comments. I always think of these as emails to you.

gretchenjoanna said...

That is a helpful compilation of poetry that expresses my heart's desire, to continue going about what is actually my business, and take comfort and strength as needed from that ever present calm of heaven. Thank you for the good messages from all over.

Maggie Emm said...

Happy New Year Stephen - looking forward to sharing the World with you for another year!

Nikki said...

You have a way of making me take the long view as well as appreciating the beauty to be found in the present moment. Quite an achievement.

Stephen Pentz said...

gretchenjoanna: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

I'm pleased you liked the post. I like your thought: ". . . to continue going about what is actually my business." Wise counsel to us all. Attend to one's own garden. Coincidentally, I think it fits well with the excerpt from the book by Jean-Claude Larchet which you posted on your blog a few days ago, which was marvelous, and so full of insight about where we find ourselves now. I was unaware of him: thank you very much for leading me to him and his work.

I hope that all is well. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you. Happy New Year to you as well. I wish you all the best in the coming year. As ever, thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you very much for the kind words. But all the credit goes to the poets, the philosophers, and the artists who shake me by the shoulders and point out where to look -- something I fail at each day, until they wake me up.

As always, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again. Best wishes for the new year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: I have taken note of your comment about not having to post your comments. However, I did want to thank you for sharing your haiku, as well as share it with other readers, since it goes well here. It also put me in mind of the following poem by Norman MacCaig:


My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I'll die
for its independence.

By the way, you are free to contact me by email, if you wish. (Although I can be an unreliable email correspondent, I'm always happy to hear from readers.)

As always, thank you for stopping by.

Bruce said...

I just finished John Gray's new book, "Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life." It's very short, the book's text only 112 pages. In it he quotes from the Japanese novelist Jinichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), who questions whether the modernization of Japan has come at the expense of a sense of beauty. "In Praise of Shadows" Tanizaki writes

we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing
against another creates. A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty
in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

And later:

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light
that whether in a stone or artefact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity. . . Yet for better or worse we do love things
that the bear the grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that
made them.

Gray comments further on what Tanizaki says:

A feature of this aesthetic is in its distaste for perfection. A strand in western aesthetics cannot help of thinking of beautiful
things as flawed embodiments of an immaterial idea. Plato's mystical vision has led western philosophers to think of beauty
as an other world radiance. In contrast, Tanizaki writes of 'the glow of grime.' True beauty is found in the natural beauty
and everyday life" (my emphasis).

Gray, at the end of his book, advises that of the many burdens that assail a self-conscious creature "One. . .we can give up is the idea that there could be a perfect life. It is not that our lives are inevitably imperfect. They are richer than any idea of perfection. The good life not a life you might have led or may yet lead, but the life you already have. Here, cats can be our teachers, for they do not miss the lives they have not lived.

Gray reminds us we will not find happiness by chasing it, plowing through the interminable and ink-swollen pages, wasted words of those who confidently tell us the road we need to be on to find happiness. Gray says that we really don't know what will make us happy. Gray suggests that one of the most useful tools in living a satisfactory life is finding appropriate diversions. This idea is as old as Montaigne. Gray gently says we should do what we find most interesting and then we will be happy knowing nothing of happiness. Gray's coda is to warn us of "anyone who offers to make us happy." If we can't, and most of us can't, live more like a cat--for cats do not seek for meaning in the world; they simply watch it, we can then without regret return to the human world of diversion. If life does have a meaning, Grays says, "life is a touch, a scent, which comes by chance and is gone before you know it."

Anonymous said...

Here's a comment from one born when FDR was President. I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned "Waiting for the Barbarians". I just reread the poem, & find it well suited to your post (the image I see there of the Roman woman in her garden with the dust on the horizon) & to these times. I love that image, as I also have seen before in your blog & always enjoy: Wordsworth's "state of savage torpor". Something I have felt from time to time in recent months.
By the way, you never know what you will find on the internet. I had no idea a movie had been made in 2019, of the novel of that title, with my favorite Mark Rylance in it no less, & sunk without a trace.
The paintings are also delightful to escape into. "Late Summer" seems unimaginable now. But the bare trees that arch above Riverside Drive are handsome as I've walked down lately toward the early sunset in the south (not west at this time of year).
Best wishes for the ensuing year, Susan

Tim Guirl said...

In times like these I find myself circling back to Kierkegaard. I am part of the warp and woof of the life around me, but am an individual ("There is no massing of men with God") and am responsible to be the person I am and am becoming. Reminders are everywhere; there is no out. Avoid self-deception like a noxious weed.

Yes, 1968 was a momentous year. I was a college student and a witness to all the unrest and turmoil. It was also around the time I was introduced to the work of the philosopher O.K. Bouswma, who was influenced by the later work of Wittgenstein. And I started reading Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman/philosopher, whose book, The True Believer, hits the nail on the heard with surgical precision about mass movements.

Thank you, John Marushkin, for sharing your haiku. And to each of you, may 2021 be filled with all that you most hope for.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts -- your own, as well as those of John Gray and Tanizaki. A few weeks ago, I came across an excerpt from Gray's book, and I have been thinking about picking it up. Your discussion of it intrigues me further. I have only read a few articles and essays by him over the years, but never one of his books. I'm sympathetic to a great deal of what he says, so I ought to explore him further.

As for chasing "happiness," I've long felt that to be a chimera which is best left behind. So Gray and I agree on that. As have many others over the millennia, of course. For instance, as you know, English poets of the 16th and 17th centuries often write of "content": "Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;/The quiet mind is richer than a crown" (Robert Greene); "Were I a king I could command content" (Edward de Vere), etc. But even contentment, serenity, tranquillity, and simple peace and quiet are elusive and illusive. Perhaps this is why Gray speaks of "diversions." I suppose, after all, poetry is a "diversion," isn't it? But perhaps better than many of the other diversions the human world offers.

In any case, thank you again for the thought-provoking observations. The final passage you quote from Gray is a good way to close, and fits well with Kokan Shiren's poem: each of us is a "stray petal" that "dance[s] and turn[s]" in the breeze for a day. As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Whenever I come across the word "barbarian," Cavafy's poem pops into mind. As you know, I am opposed to "explaining" or "explicating" poems, but Cavafy is telling us that the barbarians are already here, and/or they are us, don't you think? "Those people were a kind of solution." (Translation by Edmund Kelley and Philip Sherrard.) The danger is seldom from without.

I confess that I've felt for some time that "Waiting for the Barbarians," together with Yeats' "The Second Coming," have worn out their welcome as standard invocations when things start to go sideways in the world, a nation, a culture. This is not the fault of Cavafy or Yeats, of course. (For instance, as you know, Joan Didion used "slouching towards Bethlehem" as a book title in 1968 (that year again). Here we are 53 years later, and, as Yeats wrote in 1919, apparently something still "slouches towards Bethlehem," as I have seen the poem referenced on several occasions on the Internet since last year started to deteriorate.) Mind you, please note that this thought is in no way a criticism of your mentioning of the poem: it has crossed my mind as well.

As for "Waiting for the Barbarians" now being the title of a movie: I wasn't aware of the movie (but, then again, I haven't paid attention to contemporary movies for a decade or more). Clever title. And Johnny Depp as well. I don't know what to make of that. I wonder how many moviegoers (or cast members) would know the reference. Some enterprising filmmaker should make a movie titled "A State of Almost Savage Torpor."

I fear this response to your comment is sounding a bit cynical, but that's not how I am feeling at all: I just returned from a lovely evening walk beneath the bare branches, with sparrows twittering in the bushes -- two of the bushes, sheltered in a warm spot within a grove of pines, have begun to show green buds. Imagine that.

I hope all is well with you. I'm happy to hear you are getting out for walks. As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Take care.

Mad Padre said...

Hello Stephen:

What a pleasure to discover your blog (a link via the invaluable Clerk of Oxford ( and to find these poems so lovingly curated and so apt for the time. After watching the events of Jan 6 in DC, I've been thinking a lot of Augustine of Hippo learning of the sack of Rome, so our thoughts are running along similar tracks. As an Anglican vicar, my thoughts turn more readily to the consolations of theology, but you remind me that contemplating the ongoing beauty and calm of the world has it own rewards. Be well, I look forward to visiting your blog again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: As always, it's good to hear from you. Thank you very much for providing needed perspective. The quote from Kierkegaard is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

At least 1968 was an interesting reading year for you. I'm ashamed of my lack of knowledge of Hoffer's work: I need to rectify my ignorance, and soon. I've only read bits and pieces of him, but it certainly seems that he hit the nail on the head (years ago) when it comes to where we find ourselves now. Although I have never read any of Bouwsma's philosophical works, I am aware of his relationship with Wittgenstein. I have a copy of a collection of his notes of his conversations with Wittgenstein ("Wittgenstein: Conversations, 1949-1951"), which was published after his death. (You likely have read this.) It is an insightful, lovely book.

Thank you very much for the New Year's wishes. I wish the best to you and your loved ones this year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mad Padre: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog. I'm happy you found your way here. A Clerk of Oxford is a wonderful blog: Ms. Parker's posts are always thought-provoking, affecting, and, of course, highly informative. I've learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

Thank you as well for noting the connection between St. Augustine and the sack of Rome, which I was not aware of -- having read the Confessions (and nothing else by him, I'm afraid) far too long ago.

A point of clarification, however: my post was not in any way prompted by "the events of Jan 6 in DC;" thus, I do not believe that "our thoughts are running along similar tracks." Rather, since I live in one of the cities (Seattle) that has had public spaces and private residences and businesses destroyed, defaced, and otherwise vandalized (with the accompanying impact on residents of the city) since May 25, 2020, you might imagine that I have my own thoughts as to who the barbarians are at this point in human history. My neighborhood has escaped the visits from the vandals/Vandals, but others in the city have not been so fortunate. Please note that I make this point in good spirit, and not to chide you for your statement, or to set off a political discussion, which is the last thing I want. I try my best to keep this a politics-free blog (other than to decry, in general terms, the politicization of culture). Let's leave it at that.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I hope you'll return soon.