Saturday, August 21, 2021


The angled, honey-yellow afternoon light has taken on the aspect of autumn, and the shadows of trees have begun to lengthen across the evening fields.  Yet still the swallows skim, swoop, and curve just above the dry meadow grasses.  Once again, the time has come to visit my favorite poem of August.

       A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

I will not attempt to pick apart this thing of beauty.  Long-time readers of this blog may recall my position on these matters: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  As it happens, it appears that Stevens may share my view: "once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (January 9, 1940), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 346.)  However, despite this statement, Stevens wrote several letters to critics and translators responding to their inquiries about what certain of his poems "mean."  This gives me license to offer two tentative thoughts. First, it may be helpful to recall Stevens' references in "An Old Man Asleep" (which appeared in my previous post) to "the two worlds": "the self and the earth."  Second, think of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" and "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which also appeared in my previous post) as a lovely, complementary pair.  The self and the earth.

But we mustn't get carried away.  Consider this.  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" was first published in the October, 1937, issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Five months earlier, Stevens wrote this in a letter: "One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees.  But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Ronald Lane Latimer (May 6, 1937), in Holly Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, page 321.)  A rabbit.  Just a rabbit.  Or not.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

On a hot and windless afternoon, birdsong nearly ceases.  The swallows vanish.  But, if you walk beside a meadow, you can hear the clicking and crackling of grasshoppers, unseen, jumping in the tall grass.  If you enter a dark wood, you may notice rustling in the bushes beyond the path.  The source of the sound remains a mystery. Everything is in its place.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond (1902-1962), Collected Poems (edited by Hubert Nicholson) (Bloodaxe Books 2010).

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "The River" (1924)

"To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time."  To "examine eternity's cross-section/For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection."  Easier said than done, of course.  All of the ordinary days intervene.

"I wonder if you are haunted to the extremity that I am by this half-peaceful half-fretting sense of the incessant insecurity & fugitiveness of everything.  Every moment of the present wears a vaguely surmised suggestion that it is only pretending, that the conspiracy is just coming to an end.  I always seem to be on the brink of something; & so the future is hateful because it can't possibly come, or if it does, will only lead to other futures that can't.  And I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory -- beyond the guessings of foreboding and anxiety.  Even you are almost best in memory, where I cannot change you, nor you yourself."

Walter de la Mare, letter to Naomi Royde-Smith (April 24, 1911), in Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 183.

De la Mare wrote the passage in the letter the day before his thirty-eighth birthday.  In his eightieth year, this poem was published:


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).

De la Mare died in June of 1956.  Eleven months prior to his death, he said this: "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, page 443.)

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

Friday, August 6, 2021


Last week I took an afternoon walk on a warm, breezy, cloudless day. At times I paused beneath the trees, looking upward, listening to the leaves.  A thought suddenly occurred to me: it is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon.  At last, there is nothing to be said, no thoughts worth thinking.

     The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia, 
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954), page 533.  

The Collected Poems, Stevens' final volume of poetry, was published on October 1, 1954, the day before he turned seventy-five.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the book. It appears in a section titled The Rock, which contains the poems Stevens wrote after the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in 1950.  Stevens died on August 2, 1955.

I have been visiting Stevens' poetry recently, and at the same time I have been reading poetry written by Sōchō (1448-1532).  Sōchō's poems appear in a journal kept by him from 1522 to 1527, when he was in his seventies.  He was a renga (linked-verse) master, and spent much of his life traveling throughout Japan, participating in renga sessions, during a tumultuous and violent time.  Many of the poems in the journal are hokku, the three-line verse form which constitutes the opening link in a renga.  Hokku evolved into the free-standing poem we now know as haiku.

     Yet gently blows the wind,
and gently fall the leaves
     from the willow trees!

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō (Stanford University Press 2002), page 109.

By happenstance, I have discovered that Sōchō's poems and Stevens' late poems in The Rock go together well.  I am loath to depart from the two septuagenarians.  They are fine companions.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), "Berkshire Downs" (1922)

The evidence suggests that Stevens devoted a great deal of time to the arrangement of the poems that appear in The Rock.  He selected this as the opening poem:

                    An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 501.

I am reluctant to venture beyond the words of Stevens' poems. Far too much ink has already been spilled by the Wallace Stevens academic-industrial complex.  What could I possibly add?  Alas, how can I resist?  First, "An Old Man Asleep" is lovely, which is all that matters.  The words and their sound.  Second, "the two worlds" ("the self and the earth") are something to bear in mind when reading any poem by Stevens.  Third, and wonderfully, a beautiful particular: "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  Again, best to leave beauty as it is, and the words as they are, without comment. Yet one should be aware of the lovely and important place that rivers occupy in Stevens' poetry. "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is probably my favorite Stevens poem, but it has close competitors, one of which is "This Solitude of Cataracts": "He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice . . ."

With respect to "the drowsy motion of the river R" -- "an unnamed flowing" -- and its "gayety," "propelling force," and fatefulness, this may be worth considering:

"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct.  Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.  So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price?  It is as though one began to lose one's heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Robin Hard), Meditations, Book VI, Section 15 (Oxford University Press 2011), page 48.

That's enough of that.  A few words from Sōchō are in order:

     A morning glory --
like dreams or dew, the flower
     blooms but a moment.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 108.

Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1922)

"It is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon." So it seemed to me for a moment as I stood beneath a tree last week. Ah, merely a passing fancy.  A hasty, ill-considered conclusion. Pretentious and overly-dramatic as well.  There is much more to life than blue sky and green leaves, isn't there?

A few days later, something written by Walter Pater came to mind: "He has been a sick man all his life.  He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."  (Walter Pater, "A Prince of Court Painters," in Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1887), page 48.)  But of course.

And yet there is the final poem in The Rock, which is also the final poem in The Collected Poems.  As is the case with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which immediately precedes it) and "An Old Man Asleep," Stevens placed it where it is with intent.

   Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was 
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 534.

This time I will stay silent, and defer to Sōchō:

     In the moon's clear light
all mundane desires
     are but a path of dreams.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 29.

Paul Nash, "Oxenbridge Pond" (1928)