Friday, March 3, 2023


Each year I grow fonder of the robins who spend the winter here, gathering into small flocks, making their way across the meadows and through the woodlands.  I suspect this fondness is partly a product of aging.  Growing up in Minnesota, I was always on the lookout for rarer, more colorful birds: cardinals and Baltimore orioles, for instance.  Robins were generally regarded as being lovable, but commonplace, with one exception: in the dark, cold, snowbound, and legendary Minnesota winters of yesteryear we all awaited "the first robin of Spring."

Ah, what an inattentive, distracted, and somnolent life I have lived! The robins stroll and peck and chatter with one another, the flock spread out widely across a bright green field on a sunny late winter afternoon: alone, but together; each one of them catching the slanting yellow light, each one of them unlike anything else in the World. Agleam.  I have been fast asleep.

                           In the Fields

Lord, when I look at lovely things which pass,
     Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
     Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves,
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
     And if there is
Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing
     Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
     Over the fields.  They come in Spring.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000), page 71.  The poem was first published in March of 1923. Ibid, page 121.

"These dreams that take my breath away."  More on this anon.  But, in the meantime, here is something complementary to put beside "In the Fields":

"Lessons from the world around us: certain localities, certain moments, 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats.  An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait.'  But is there still the time, the patience to wait?  And is 'waiting' really the right word?"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Little Park, Lyme Regis" (1956)

At times, Charlotte Mew's poetry seems to echo the religious concerns found throughout Christina Rossetti's poetry.  However, there is a hesitation, a questioning, in Mew's poems which is seldom present in Rossetti's work (which can perhaps be described as devotional).  Thus, "In the Fields" begins with a query to God: "Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?"  Mew continues: "And if there is/Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing/Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?"  What might have seemed a straightforward hymn to Nature and Creation is transformed into something else entirely by those four lovely and remarkable lines. (By the way, "the strange heart of any everlasting thing" deserves a great deal of attention in itself.  "Strange heart"?  Wonderful.)

But I fear I am wandering too far into the much-to-be-avoided territory of explanation and explication.  It is the beguiling beauty of "these dreams that take my breath away" which captures me, and which in turn leads to this:

               Do Dreams Lie Deeper?

          His dust looks up to the changing sky
               Through daisies' eyes;
          And when a swallow flies
               Only so high
          He hears her going by
     As daisies do.  He does not die
In this brown earth where he was glad enough to lie.
          But looking up from that other bed,
     "There is something more my own," he said,
     "Than hands or feet or this restless head
          That must be buried when I am dead.
     The Trumpet may wake every other sleeper.
               Do dreams lie deeper --?
                    And what sunrise
     When these are shut shall open their little eyes?
     They are my children, they have very lovely faces --
          And how does one bury the breathless dreams?
          They are not of the earth and not of the sea,
They have no friends here but the flakes of the falling snow;
               You and I will go down two paces --
                    Where do they go?"

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems, pages 73-74.  The poem was first published in The Rambling Sailor (Poetry Bookshop 1929) after Mew's death in 1928.  

I confess that I have never known quite what to make of this, other than to say that I love it.  I do not propose to pick apart its many wonders.  But please compare "Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing/Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?" with this: "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  One senses the hesitation and questioning that I mentioned above.  But, again, it is the beauty which captures me.  "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  As well as this: "Do dreams lie deeper --?" And this: "You and I will go down two paces --/Where do they go?"

Once more, some thoughts by Philippe Jaccottet may be apt, not as a direct commentary on Mew's two poems, but as a kindred exploration of the World:

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience: the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history.  Can it therefore teach me no lesson -- outside the poetry in which it speaks --, offer me no directive in the way I conduct my life?

"As I reflect on all this I begin to see nonetheless that the poetic experience does give me direction, at least towards a sense of the high; and this is because I am quite naturally led to see poetry as a glimpse of the Highest and to regard it in a sense (and why not?) as it has been regarded from its very beginnings, as a mirror of the heavens."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (The Delos Press/The Menard Press 1997), page 157. The italics appear in the original text.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (1959)

"There is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being."  In his poetry and prose, Philippe Jaccottet is an eloquent, patient, and painstaking observer of the beautiful particulars of the World, but a key feature of his work is his continual recognition of the ineffable mystery that lies at the heart of the World.  Words will always fail us.

Dreams: absolute clarity coupled with evanescence.  Gone in an instant, never to be recalled.  "These dreams that take my breath away."  "And how does one bury the breathless dreams?"  Charlotte Mew was onto something.  But the mystery remains.

                     The Sunlit House

White through the gate it gleamed and slept
     In shuttered sunshine: the parched garden flowers,
Their fallen petals from the beds unswept,
     Like children unloved and ill-kept
               Dreamed through the hours.
Two blue hydrangeas by the blistered door, burned brown,
     Watched there and no one in the town
     Cared to go past it, night or day,
     Though why this was they wouldn't say.
But I, the stranger, knew that I must stay,
     Pace up the weed-grown paths and down,
     Till one afternoon -- there is just a doubt --
     But I fancy I heard a tiny shout --
     From an upper window a bird flew out --
               And I went my way.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems, page 55.  The poem was written before July 29, 1913, and was first published in 1921.  Ibid, page 117.

Philippe Jaccottet has also written of a garden:

"I should very much like to go beyond these meagre findings, to extract from these scattered signs an entire sentence which would act as a commandment.  I cannot.  I claimed in the past to be a 'servant of the visible world.'  Yet what I do is more like the work of a gardener tending a garden and too often neglecting it: the weeds of time.

"Where are the gods of this garden?  I sometimes see my uncertainties as the snowflakes whirled by the wind, stirred, blown upwards, abandoned, or the birds half obeying the wind, half playing with it, and offering us the sight of wings which are sometimes as black as night, sometimes gleaming with the reflection of some strange light.

"(So it would be possible to live without definite hopes, but not without help, with the thought -- so close to certainty -- that if there is a single hope, a single opening for man, it would not be refused to someone who had lived 'beneath this sky.')

"(The highest hope would be that the whole sky were really a gaze.)"

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures, page 159.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

"The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  Consider living creatures -- none lives so long as man.  The May fly waits not for the evening, the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn.  What a wonderfully unhurried feeling it is to live even a single year in perfect serenity!  If that is not enough for you, you might live a thousand years and still feel it was but a single night's dream."

Kenkō (1283-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 7, in Donald Keene (editor and translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 7-8.

Perhaps we should think of this uncertain life as a series of dreams. If we are attentive -- and, above all else, grateful -- these dreams can take our breath away.

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

All winter long, the robins have charmingly chattered amongst themselves about practical matters (the weather, the search for food, where to spend the night) as they walked and flitted across the meadows.  But, at this time of year, by ones and twos they fly up into the bare branches of the bordering trees and begin to sing.

          On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going.
From what quarter departed?  Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying --
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance.

Ryūsen Reisai (d. 1365) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury (editor), Poems of the Five Mountains (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.  Ury provides this note to the poem: "The poem begins with a Zen truism, which is expanded into a personal statement."  Ibid, page 33.

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window" (c. 1937)