Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring. And All Else.

The poems that move us the most have an inexpressible mystery at their heart.  This is a dogmatic proposition that I cannot hope to defend on a rational basis.  It is a corollary to one of my two laws of poetry (which long-time -- and much-appreciated! -- readers of this blog may recall):  Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (For those who may be interested, my second law is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)

With those platitudinous truisms out of the way, let us consider, for instance, this:

            A Song for a Parting

                            I.
Flora will pass from firth to firth;
Duty must draw, and vows must bind.
Flora will sail half round the earth,
Yet will she leave some grace behind.

                            II.
Waft her, on Faith, from friend to friend,
Make her a saint in some far isle;
Yet will we keep, till memories end,
Something that once was Flora's smile.

William Cory (1823-1892), Ionica (Third Edition; edited by A. C. Benson) (George Allen 1905).  The poem originally appeared in the 1891 edition of Ionica.

William Cory is best known for his translation of a poem by Callimachus (c. 310 - c. 240 BC).  Callimachus's poem is found in The Greek Anthology.  Cory's translation, which has appeared here in the past, begins:  "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,/They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed." It concludes:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take." "Thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales" refers to Heraclitus's poems.

Who, or what, is "Flora"?  The Roman goddess of flowers and of spring?  Or is she a real person whose identity is cloaked in an evocative alias?  Or neither?  I have no idea.  Yet the poem still beguiles me, for it is a beautiful thing.  Flora is Flora.  Nothing more need be said.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

As lovely and welcome as the arrival of spring is, I have lately found myself regretting the coming disappearance of the bare branches of the trees as the leaves emerge.  As one ages, it seems that life and the World take on a more elegiac cast.  I say this without a trace of melancholy, complaint, or foreboding.  The beautiful particulars of the World seem more beautiful to me with each passing year, with a beauty that continually unfolds, without end.  This no doubt has something to do with a quickening awareness of the evanescence of all things.  There is no getting around it:  time is short.  Yet an elegy need not be a lament.

And so I never tire of looking up at the breathtaking intricacy of interlacing empty branches against the sky, in any weather.  But particularly when, beyond the branches, white castles of cloud travel across the blue.  Nor will the shadows of those same branches spread out at my feet on a sunny day ever cease to be a source of wonder.

"A Song for a Parting."  Exactly.

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Beginning

When I looked out the front window on Saturday morning, I saw a few dozen sailboats out on Puget Sound.  The spring racing season has begun.  The sails, spread across the water from north to south, were a lovely, spirit-lifting sight.  Another version of Wordsworth's daffodils:  "a crowd, a host . . . fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

An annual confirmation of renewal, of beginning anew.  One feels that a page has been turned.

                                Kinsale

The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1985).

Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)

To the west, beyond the water and the sails, the peaks of the Olympic Mountains towered and gleamed, covered with a winter's worth of snow, their slopes mottled with shifting cloud shadows.  Everything was in its place.  A spring day can give one the feeling of having arrived safely home.  To begin again.

     The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first seasonal 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea-mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow-mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the hills of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Poem

A poem that has moved us stays with us, and often returns of its own accord.  Long ago, I cannot remember when and where, I purchased a collection of poems titled Northern Light.  It is a pleasing book to hold in your hands:  black covers, six-and-a-half inches wide, ten inches long, thin (only 66 pages), and printed on better-than-average, deckle-edged paper.  There is a single poem on each page, surrounded by a great deal of open space.

The book was published in London in 1930.  The colophon on the reverse side of the title page states:  "275 copies only for sale have been printed of NORTHERN LIGHT.  Each copy has been signed by the Author."  Immediately beneath the colophon is a tiny, neat signature in light blue ink (from a nib, not a ball-point):  "L. A. G. Strong."  Leonard Alfred George Strong (1896-1958) belonged to that now nearly extinct species known as "the English man of letters."  In addition to poetry, he wrote novels, short stories, plays, biographies, and literary criticism.  I first came to know of him through A New Anthology of Modern Verse, 1920-1940, which he co-edited with C. Day Lewis.

There are several lovely poems in Northern Light.  But there is one that stands out for me, and to which I return, either in my mind or by revisiting the book.  It is a poem that has appeared here in the past.

                           Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Yesterday evening, I was in a wistful, vaguely unsettled mood, for no particular reason, internal or external.  Was it the vernal equinox, perhaps?  No.  Just a mood.  But I suddenly felt the need to read "Garramor Bay."  There you have it.

Dane Maw (1906-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Today

Today was sunny yet cool, a day of amber-yellow angled light and of tree shadows stretching across bright green fields.  Walking beneath the bare trees, looking up into the intricate branches set against the sky, I was brought up short by a sudden realization:  the six decades that I have been alive have led to this single instant, an instant in which I am walking at the point of my still unfolding existence, all of those 60-odd years trailing behind me, disappearing, on a brilliant day in early March.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village" (1939)

I claim no uniqueness for this moment of awareness.  But it did hit me with a fair amount of force.  There was nothing sorrowful or melancholic in what I felt.  If anything, the moment was one of exhilaration and peace.

A few moments later, a passage by Marcus Aurelius came to mind. Upon returning home, I found it:

"If thou shouldst live three thousand years, or as many myriads, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 14, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Earlier this evening, a haiku by Kobayashi Issa returned to me:

     Under moon and flowers,
Forty-nine years
     Of fruitless wandering.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

Thus ends my report for today.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Havens

Around the middle of the week before last, I read this:

          Heaven-Haven
      A nun takes the veil

     I have desired to go
          Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
     And a few lilies blow.

     And I have asked to be
          Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
     And out of the swing of the sea.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).

The poem's title may be an echo of the final line of George Herbert's "The Size":  "These seas are tears, and heav'n the haven."  Ibid, page 248.  "Blow" (line 4) is used in the sense of "to bloom" (a usage that, up until the 20th century, was common, but that has now, to our loss, nearly vanished).

The fragmentary beginnings of the poem appear in a notebook entry made by Hopkins in 1864 under the title "Rest."  Lesley Higgins (editor), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume III: Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks (Oxford University Press 2015), page 203.  Hopkins converted to Catholicism two years later. Four years after his conversion, he took his vows as a Jesuit novice.

These background details may be of interest, but it is best to leave well enough alone, isn't it?  "Heaven-Haven" speaks for itself.  Any further comment is superfluous.  Nay, destructive.

John Inchbold (1830-1888), "Anstey's Cove, Devon" (1854)

"Heaven-Haven" was still with me when, last weekend, I happened upon this:

The kind of place
     where the way a traveler's tracks
disappear in snow
     is something you get used to --
such a place is this world of ours.

Princess Shikishi (12th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 181.

Encountering Princess Shikishi's waka after reading "Heaven-Haven" was purely a matter of coincidence, but I always harbor the notion (an overly romantic notion, no doubt) that, when it comes to reading poetry, such coincidences are placed in our path for a reason.

By who or by what, you may ask.  I have no answer.  I could recur to this statement by Philippe Jaccottet, which appeared in my previous post:  "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."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 157.

On the other hand, perhaps a more commonplace (yet still miraculous) explanation suffices.

Kerria in bloom:
a leaf, a flower, a leaf,
a flower, a leaf.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 402.  The poem is a haiku.

A leaf, a flower, a leaf, a flower, a leaf.  And so it goes with each of the World's beautiful particulars.  Throughout each of the seasons. Throughout our life.  Each encounter a pure coincidence.  Or not.

John Inchbold, "A Study, in March" (1855)

Finally, a few days ago, I revisited this waka:

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), Ibid, page 134.  Nōin was a Buddhist monk.

The poem brought me back full circle to "Heaven-Haven."  A monk-poet in 11th century Japan.  A poet and a nun in 19th century England.  The beauty of poetry -- of the World -- is of a piece, at all times and in all places.

John Inchbold, "Bolton Abbey" (1853)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mirrors, Glimmers, Glimpses

In this part of the world, one must learn to embrace greyness and inclemency.  Otherwise, you may find it difficult to venture beyond your doorstep.  You learn to adapt.  For instance, after living here a certain number of years, one day, without making a conscious decision to do so, you stop using umbrellas.  It just happens. Cumbersome things, after all.  A hat or a hood (or neither) will do.

But, beyond the minor practicalities, there is this:  the World has a way of providing us with compensations, however small and however fleeting.  If we fail to remain on the lookout for these compensations, all is lost, whether we abide at the Equator or in farthest Thule.

He who has lived in sunshine all day long,
               His happy eyes
From too much light defending,
               He cannot duly prize
One gleam of light at the day's ending.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  The poem is untitled.  It was written in 1888.

"One gleam of light" may be all that we get, but it is more than enough.  A few days ago, while out for a walk, I saw the first tuft of blossoming crocuses -- pale purple -- next to the sidewalk.  The dark green shoots of daffodils have begun to emerge as well.  Unexpected compensations.  Enough to subsist upon.

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life.  Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said? Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Paysages avec Figures Absentes) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4.  In the original French text, the passage ends with the ellipses.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "February Afternoon"

In this matter of the World's freely-bestowed compensations, we should never forget the miraculous puddle.  I have sung the praises of puddles -- those World-reflecting wonders -- in the past, and I will do so again now.  At the beginning of last week, on my afternoon walk, I was marveling at how the beauty of bare branches set against a cloud-dappled blue sky becomes deeper, more profound, when seen on the surface of a humble puddle.  But that is not the end of it:  the beauty takes on yet a different aspect as you begin to walk.  All of the intricacy, color, and depth moves along with you, at your feet, as you pass beside the bright water -- an entire upside-down World in motion.

I thought of puddles when I came across these four lines later in the week:

Thou mirror that hast danced through such a world,
So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world,
That hast so much reflected, but, alas,
Retained so little in thy careless depths.

Matthew Arnold, fragment from "Lucretius," in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans, Green 1965), page 585.

Allott notes that this fragment echoes a passage in Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna":

          Hither and thither spins
          The wind-borne, mirroring soul,
          A thousand glimpses wins,
          And never sees a whole;
Looks once, and drives elsewhere, and leaves its last employ.

Matthew Arnold, "Empedocles on Etna," Act I, Scene II, lines 82-86, Ibid, page 159.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this image of the soul as a mirror. "Thou mirror that hast danced through such a world,/So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world" is indeed a lovely thought.  But, at the risk of oversimplifying (and/or misinterpreting) Arnold's point (which originates in his reading of the philosophical remnants of Empedocles), I wonder if he isn't being a bit too pessimistic about the soul's capabilities.  His vision of the soul as a mirror seems far too passive.  My limited experience with puddles suggests that some mirrors may "retain" (to use Arnold's word) a great deal of the World upon -- and beneath -- their surfaces.

John Aldridge, "The River Pant near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)

As the crocuses and the daffodils emerge, the flitting and twittering spirits arrive as well.  I recently noticed a single dove disappearing into a bush in the back garden.  I hope, as was the case last year, I will be hearing coos outside my window later this spring and through the summer.

Saturday afternoon, walking through the woods, I noticed that the bushes beside the paths have come into leaf.  (I hadn't noticed this earlier in the week.  I was no doubt inattentive.  On the other hand, these things sometimes happen in the space of a day, or overnight.) At the tip of each twig is a single leaf or a small, unfolding spray of leaves.  I was entranced by one bush in particular:  at the center of each green spray was a circle of tiny white blossoms, a cluster of bright yellow stamens at the heart of each blossom.

                                   The inward frame
Though slowly opening, opens every day
With process not unlike to that which cheers
A pensive Stranger, journeying at his leisure
Through some Helvetian dell, when low-hung mists
Break up, and are beginning to recede;
How pleased he is where thin and thinner grows
The veil, or where it parts at once, to spy
The dark pines thrusting forth their spiky heads;
To watch the spreading lawns with cattle grazed,
Then to be greeted by the scattered huts,
As they shine out; and see the streams whose murmur
Had soothed his ear while they were hidden:  how pleased
To have about him, which way e'er he goes,
Something on every side concealed from view,
In every quarter something visible,
Half-seen or wholly, lost and found again,
Alternate progress and impediment,
And yet a growing prospect in the main.

William Wordsworth, "Home at Grasmere," The Recluse, Part I, Book I, lines 472-490, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (University of Oxford Press 1949).

To combine Arnold and Wordsworth:  in "such a world,/So manifold, so fresh, so brave a world," "the inward frame/Though slowly opening, opens every day."  Glimpses and glimmers.

John Aldridge, "Roofing a New House"

Last night's sunset over Puget Sound brought to mind these lines: "the red, lurid wreckage of the sunset/Smoulders in smoky fire." (John Masefield, "On Eastnor Knoll.")  However, that is too strong a description:  it was more delicate than "lurid," more deep orange-pink than primary, burning red.  Still, "smoulders in smoky fire" rings true.

But more striking than the sunset was a large oval orange-pink-purple gleam that appeared out in the middle of the Sound after the sun had disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains.  There is surely a scientific explanation for why the pool of light appeared there when it did:  something about the sun's declining rays glancing off the clouds, et cetera.  Ah, well, there are always explanations, aren't there?  They take the life out of the World.

"Slanting Pillars of Light, like Ladders up to Heaven, their base always a field of vivid green Sunshine."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1577 (October, 1803).

We should attend to these glimmers and glimpses.  Who knows where they will lead us?

"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.
* * * * *
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 . . .
* * * * *
(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, pages 157 and 159.  The italics and the ellipses are in the original text.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How To Live, Part Twenty-Seven: Equanimity

I began this series of posts back in August of 2010.  I neglected to note at the outset of the series that I am completely unqualified to provide any advice on "How to Live."  I have never harbored, and will never harbor, any such presumption.  Hence, any advice that appears here is solely attributable to the poets and their poems.  I am merely the befuddled messenger.

A further disclaimer:  as I have stated in the past, I do not believe that the purpose of poetry is to edify.  A poet who sets out to write a poem aimed at teaching us something is doomed to failure.  Thus, for instance, that contradiction in terms known as "political poetry": a soi-disant "poem" that purports to instruct us on the rightness or wrongness of a political belief (left, right, or Martian) does not, under any circumstances, qualify as poetry.  Self-regarding propaganda, yes. Poetry, no.

That being said, we do read poetry for its Beauty and its Truth.  Well, at least I do, although I may be wholly misguided.  Accordingly, the poems that appear in this series are in the nature of memoranda to myself:  they are reminders of the possibilities that Beauty and Truth open up for us.

Here, then, is a bit of good advice about how to live:

                               Precept

Dwell in some decent corner of your being,
Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet,
Not in its devious crooked corridors
Nor in its halls of riot.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

Charles Holmes (1868-1936), "Bude Canal" (1915)

Note that Reeves acknowledges that each of us does have "devious crooked corridors" and "halls of riot" within us.  Given that we are wont to hold overly flattering views of ourselves, the recognition that these corridors and halls exist is in itself an important first step.  But this is often a matter of one step forward, two steps back.  Still, most of us try to do our imperfect best.

And once I knew
A hasty man,
So small, so kind, and so perfunctory,
Of such an eager kindness
It flushed his little face with standing shame.

Wherever he came
He poured his alms into a single hand
That was full then empty.  He could not understand.
A foolish or a blessed blindness,
Saint or fool, a better man than you.

Edwin Muir, in Peter Butter (editor), The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies 1991).  The poem is untitled.  Muir wrote it in the final years of his life, and did not publish it during his lifetime.

Perfection is not in the cards for any of us, and the sooner we realize this the better.  "A foolish or a blessed blindness" that leads to the practice of kindness is certainly not a bad thing.  If nothing else, it suggests the presence of humility, which, it seems to me, is a good place from which to begin.

                         From the Latin (but not so pagan)

Blessed is he that has come to the heart of the world and is humble.
He shall stand alone; and beneath
His feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble
Of the hungry river of death.

Hilaire Belloc, Sonnets and Verse (Duckworth 1938).

Yes, "there will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  At least not yet.

Charles Holmes, "The Yellow Wall, Blackburn" (1932)

We live our lives in "the vale of Soul-making."  In that vale, exalted alpine heights and expansive seaside vistas -- and their wide perspectives -- are few and far between.  Most of our time passes in the manner of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, waning towards evening, half-lit.  And yet.  Just over a year before writing of "the vale of Soul-making," Keats wrote this:

"I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness -- I look not for it if it be not in the present hour -- nothing startles me beyond the Moment.  The setting sun will always set me to rights -- or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817, in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), page 38.

At the risk of making a tenuous connection, a statement made by my favorite mystic may be worth considering at this point:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  An alternative translation is:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." (Translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness.)

What Keats and Wittgenstein have to say about living in the present moment is nothing new:  they are repeating wisdom that has been known in all places and at all times.  But this wisdom has to be learned anew by each soul that arrives here.  "Dwell[ing] in some decent corner of your being,/Where plates are orderly set and talk is quiet" is, I think, an essential element of the learning process:  living in the present moment requires presence of mind.  Easier said than done, of course.

                         Rarities

Beauty, and grace, and wit are rare;
     And even intelligence:
But lovelier than hawthorn seen in May,
Or mistletoe berries on Innocent's Day
The face that, open as heaven, doth wear --
With kindness for its sunshine there --
     Good nature and good sense.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Charles Holmes, "A Warehouse" (1921)

I fear that I have floated too far off into the ether.  Let's face it: inhabiting the present moment on a consistent basis (even without adding "eternity" or "timelessness" into the mix) is not something that most of us are up to.  I know that I'm not.  But something short of that may be enough to bring us a measure of repose.

In this matter of Soul-making we need to proceed in a measured, attentive, and thoughtful fashion.  There are no short-cuts.  Wrong turns and dead-ends are common.  Thus, coming anywhere close to possessing a modicum of "good nature and good sense" is, as de la Mare observes, a rare accomplishment indeed.  Enough work to keep us busy for a lifetime, with no guarantee of success.  Moreover, none of us will ever be in a position to say of ourself that we possess "good nature and good sense."  How could we?  That is for others to decide.

Yet, if we "dwell in some decent corner of [our] being," and if we "come to the heart of the world and [are] humble," we may be headed in the right direction.  And if -- an enormous if -- we are patient, receptive, and fortunate, we may arrive at a place of serenity.

                 From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).  Coleridge wrote the poem in 1907, the year in which she died (at the age of 45).

Charles Holmes, "Scholar Gipsy" (1917)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Words

As human beings, we are adept (more or less) at putting things into words.  It is what we do.  Hence, for instance, poetry.  It has been argued that this trafficking in words is what sets us apart from the other creatures with whom we share the World.  Sets us apart for both good and ill, I would suggest.  Poetry, yes.  But a great deal of noisome noise as well.  There is no need to go into the particulars. You know them well.

However, there are some things that are simply unsayable, however articulate and clever we fancy ourselves to be.  Thus, as it wondrously happens, an awareness of the inexpressibility of certain fundamental elements of existence and of the World often accounts for the beauty and the truth of the poems that move us.

     'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water'

'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water.'
Such were the words that fell as by dictation
Into the cloud of my preoccupation,
And one by one they fluttered down like leaves,
Touching me with their strange illumination --
Like leaves the girls would catch at Butler's Cross
To bring themselves good luck, each leaf a year.

'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water.'
A grey-green light of depths that do not stir
Beneath the unfledged ash-bough's contemplation
Touches me now as I transcribe the words.
Such were the depths perhaps where Hylas drowned,
Such were the wreaths his temptresses would wear.
But who are they who came to shelter there
And live obscurely by that leaf-light crowned,
Patiently mending their storm-shattered minds?

Who came to live in grace at Daffodil Water,
And why they sheltered there and from what storm,
Neither the voice that speaks through my abstraction
Nor my own fantasy serves to inform.

James Reeves, The Talking Skull (Heinemann 1958).

Hylas (line 12) was a young man who was a companion to Heracles, and one of the Argonauts who accompanied Heracles and Jason in search of the Golden Fleece.  However, while on the journey, he was seduced by the temptations of the nymphs who haunted a spring and vanished beneath the water of a pond, never to be seen again.

Stanley Roy Badmin (1906-1989), "Stormy Evening, Glencoe"

The phrase "words fail me" usually carries with it a connotation of inadequacy or of frustration.  However, it may in fact represent a sign of progress.  To wit:

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.522, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness) (italics in the original).  An alternative translation is: "There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical."  (Translated by C. K. Ogden.)

The word "mystical" (whether used by Wittgenstein or by anyone else) causes some people (ironic moderns, for example) to raise their eyebrows.  The same is true of the word "Immanence."  I don't know why this should be the case.  Perhaps the modern temper is not as "open-minded" as it believes itself to be.  In truth, it is quite doctrinaire and intolerant.  But we are each free to follow our own path.

                              Abersoch

There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

Wittgenstein was fond of William James, and of The Varieties of Religious Experience in particular.  He is said to have read it in 1912 in Cambridge, nine years before Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published.  It was one of the books he often recommended (or gave) to friends (another such book, interestingly, was Samuel Johnson's Prayers and Meditations).  James identifies "ineffability" as one of the four defining features of mysticism, and states:

"The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative.  The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.  It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.  In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect."

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green 1902), page 380.

I am not attempting to pigeonhole 'And so they came to live at Daffodil Water' or "Abersoch" as "mystical" poems, or as poems about "Immanence":  they are, after all, composed of words and they do "say" something concrete.  But I think they also point to something ineffable and unsayable beyond themselves.  I am reminded of R. H. Blyth's comment (using a Buddhist saying) about how a haiku works:  "It is a single finger pointing to the moon."  R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page i.  The Buddhist lesson is that we must ultimately look beyond the pointing finger.

Robert Coventry (1855-1914), "The Haven" (1908)

In the end, there are certain things -- likely the most important things -- that are beyond the reach of words.  To think otherwise is to give ourselves too much credit and too much power.  We are forever overestimating our ability to formulate dispositive explanations of existence and of the World that rely upon words.  There are certain things that are beyond words.  Wittgenstein's well-known proposition (which I have quoted here on numerous occasions) is true:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

And where does this leave us?  Bereft of words, we may feel hopelessly lost.  Ah, but that's the beauty of letting words go, and of accepting silence:  we are exactly where we ought to be.

                 The Forest of Dean

'Now here you could not lose your way,
Although you lost it,' seemed to say
Each path that ran to left or right
Through narrowing distance out of sight.

'Not here, not here,' whistled a thrush
And 'Never, never,' sighed a thorn-bush;
Primroses looked me in the face
With, 'O too lovely is this place.'

A larch-bough waved a loose green beard
And 'Never, never,' still I heard;
'Wayfarer, seek no more your track,
It lies each side and front and back.'

Andrew Young, Winter Harvest (Nonesuch Press 1933).

"The Forest of Dean" is prefigured in an earlier poem by Young:

                  In the New Forest

With branch on sighing branch reclined
     And wild rose beckoning wild rose,
I lose my way, only to find
     That no-one here his way can lose.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).  The poem appears in a letter that Young wrote to John Freeman in August of 1927.  Ibid, page 329.  He did not publish it during his lifetime.  Freeman was an acquaintance of both Edward Thomas and Walter de la Mare.  A few of his poems have appeared here in the past.

Daffodil Water, Abersoch, the Forest of Dean, the New Forest.  Here. With nothing more to be said, are we in precisely the right place?

Dane Maw (1906-1989), "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Anew

As I have noted here in the past, I am not one to make New Year's resolutions.  Still, the turning of the year is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of what is important in life, and to consider how we ought to place ourselves in the World.

The reminders (aspirations of a sort) that I offer below are not intended to be all-inclusive.  And please bear in mind that I do not in any way, shape, or form claim to exemplify these qualities.  Far, far from it:  on a daily basis, I fail miserably to live in accordance with these common sense habits of being.  But our lot on earth is to fail, yet to persist.  We are, after all, in Keats's "vale of Soul-making":  an ongoing journey, with an end beyond our ken.

These aspirations are echoed in three haiku that I try to revisit at this time each year.  Here is the first:

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds!

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

Naturally, the turning of the year brings an awareness of time and its passing.  In Japan, there is an added dimension to this tolling of time:  as the old year ends and the new year begins, the bells in Buddhist temples are rung 108 times in order to remind we mortals of each of the 108 desires that beset us.

Our time here is short, and is shortening as we breathe.  This fact should be sufficient to provide us with perspective as to how best to spend our remaining moments.  To wit:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"

Given that we may "step into the grave" at any moment (a sobering thought, but not cause for despair), we had best attend to the fellow souls with whom we abide in the vale of Soul-making.  It is all quite simple, really (but, like many simple things, difficult in the observance):

                  . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

Kindness.  The polar opposite of the irony and the politicization that infect the world in which we now live.  Political beliefs (of any stripe) have nothing whatsoever to do with the ability of a person to behave in a decent manner toward one's fellow souls.  As for irony, I find the contemporary version to be self-regarding, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and irremediably misanthropic.

Alas, failure in the practice of kindness occurs on a daily basis (speaking for myself).  But it is a new year.  The second haiku provides not a resolution, but a reminder:

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press  1952), page 413.

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

And, finally, my third turning-of-the-year haiku:

     To wake, alive, in this world,
What happiness!
     Winter rain.

Shōha (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 217.

The Old Year should end and the New Year should begin with an expression of that from which all else flows:  gratitude.  Gratitude for the World and its beautiful particulars.  Gratitude for being alive.  Gratitude for, yes, winter rain.

Best wishes for the New Year, dear readers.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In Memory Of Ivor Gurney

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the death of Ivor Gurney:  he passed away on December 26, 1937, at the age of 47.  We are naturally drawn to Gurney as a person:  his life is compelling, harrowing, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  Given the biographical facts, it is tempting to caricature him as any (or all) of the following:  a "war poet," a "mad poet," or a "troubled genius" (as both a poet and a composer).  But that would be a disservice both to Gurney as a person and to his art.

His life does attract our attention, and I am not suggesting we should disregard it.  But, in reading his poetry (and in listening to his music), it is perhaps best to think of him simply as a soul who loved life and loved the World.  And that love began and ended with England and with, above all else, his native Gloucestershire.

               Song

Only the wanderer
     Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
     Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
     That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
     O Severn meadows.

Ivor Gurney,  Severn & Somme (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

Alfred Thornton (1863-1939), "The Upper Severn"

"And who loves joy as he/That dwells in shadows?"  He knew exactly where he stood.  This is what breaks our heart.  Yet he knew this as well:

        The Songs I Had

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For others' delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). The poem appears in a notebook that Gurney used between 1921 and 1922. Ibid, page 100.  It was not published during his lifetime.

Looking back, I see that Gurney's poems have appeared here in twenty or so posts over the years.  We owe it to him to never forget, and to keep alive, his "bright tracks" and his "flowers."  Here are a few:  "The Escape;" "The Wind;" "Brimscombe;" "The Shelter from the Storm;" "Soft rain beats upon my windows;" "First Time In."

Parta Quies.  "Sleep on, sleep sound."

Alfred Thornton, "Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire"