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)
Lovely post and I love the artwork, very gentle, thank you.
Five days the snow had lain
Deep as a boot. Mouths of ice
Hung from roofs and windows,
The river slid by like a wolf.
At noon I went out with crumbs
Cupped in one hand. As I crouched,
A robin fluttered from nowhere,
Grasped the landfall of my palm.
A rowan eye inspected me
Side on. The blood-red throat
Swelled and sank, breathing quickly,
Till hungry, the beak stabbed fast.
The robin finished, turned,
Let out one jewel of sound,
Then ruffled up into the sky –
A skate on the frosty air.
from Making the Known World New
(Saint Andrew Press, 2009)
I discovered your blog a week ago. Have been back to it many times already.
What an achievement; what a treasure.
Your melding of poetry, painting and commentary is a work of art in itself. Chapeau!
Greetings from London, UK
"Everywhere fragrance" -- So many blessed gifts of this life send forth delicious scents, both material and immaterial. I might call them fragrant dreams, if by dreams we mean the sense of deep mystery, and enticing hints of a revelation to come.
To be honest, sometimes life is not like a good dream of beautiful things, but more like the heavy feeling when trying to wake from a dead sleep, and the mind is like mud at the bottom of the limpid pool, struggling to see anything. But you help me to wake up and remember. The sunshine of springtime is a great boon, too -- Happy March!
“The highest hope would be that the whole sky were really a gaze” brings to mind a quote from George MacDonald in an old devotional book of my grandfather’s. “When I look like this into the blue sky, it seems so deep, so peaceful, so full of a mysterious tenderness, that I could lie for centuries and wait for the dawning of the face of God out of the awful loving-kindness.”
hart: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post. I'm pleased you liked it. As ever, thank you very much for visiting.
Danish dog: What a lovely poem! Perfect. Thank you very much for sharing it. (I recall you mentioning Mr. Steven's poetry (or perhaps quoting another of his poems) in one of your comments here in the past. At the time, I found some of his poems on the internet, and liked them. I bookmarked his website, and intended to purchase one of his collections. I failed to do so, so this poem serves as a reminder that I need to explore his poetry further.)
Thank you very much for visiting, and for your long-time presence here. I hope that all is well.
"Unknown" in London: Thank you so much for your kind words about the blog. As I have stated here in the past, all of the credit for anything I do goes to the poets, writers, and artists whose work I share: I am merely a messenger. I am always gratified and thankful to discover that the words and images I love may resonate with others as well.
I'm happy you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thank you again.
Gretchen Joanna: Those are true and lovely thoughts. Thank you very much for sharing them.
Having enjoyed your photos of your beautiful garden on Gladsome Lights over the years, I surmise you are often surrounded by beautiful sights and fragrances. But, yes, I agree: life, and the world around us, both have their share of darkness. Thank you for saying that my posts may help you "to wake up and remember." That's very kind of you. As it happens, the poems and paintings that prompt my posts, and my writing of the posts, help me to wake up and remember.
As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. I wish you a wonderful March (and the rest of spring) as well. Judging from the recent photos of your garden, the season is proceeding quite beautifully in your part of the World. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. Take care.
Esther: Thank you very much for sharing that passage from George MacDonald: it does fit perfectly with Jaccottet's thought, doesn't it? "So full of a mysterious tenderness" is particularly nice. (On a side-note, I like his use of "awful" in the phrase "the awful loving-kindness." Coleridge uses the spellings "aweful" or "awe-ful" at times in his notebooks, which reflects the original positive sense of the word: "awe-inspiring; solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic." (OED) This sense of the word has been lost, alas.)
The passage by MacDonald brings to mind a wonderful chapter from Kenkō's Essays in Idleness: "A certain hermit once said, 'There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.' I can understand why he should have felt that way." (Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 20; translation by Donald Keene.) I suspect you are already familiar with the chapter.
So, cherry blossom time is approaching in Tokyo! I just checked the internet, and the Japan Meteorological Corporation is predicting that blossoming will commence in Tokyo on March 16, and peak on March 24. As I think I have mentioned here before, I remember being astounded by the crowds in the Tokyo parks at this time of year. Hanami was not as peaceful and contemplative as I had hoped! But I'm sure you have some out-of-the-way viewing spots.
As ever, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well.
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