Sunday, July 24, 2016

River

My daily walk takes me through several tree tunnels.  Here is my variation on Wordsworth:  "My heart leaps up when I behold". . . a tunnel of trees awaiting me.  I never tire of walking down the tunnels, and I hope I never will.  Wordsworth again:  "So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!" These Romantic effusions are nearly always correct, despite what ironic moderns may think of them.

The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me.  In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers:  rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.

       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 of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock."  "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection.  A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).

"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times.  It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens.  In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period.  But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means."  I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)

Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me.  He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold.  Yet he is one of my favorite poets.  Why?  Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me).  I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.

Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry:  "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success."  (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.)  Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote.  In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems.  But Jarrell's point is an excellent one:  at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human.  For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.

In the same essay, Jarrell writes:  "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."  (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor").  But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.

               The Countryman

Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,

Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.

He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,

The name.  He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --

Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950).  Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.

"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem.  It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years:  "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape."  But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas:  "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74.  These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).

Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human.  This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above.  Stevens seems to have been aware of this:  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"  (There's that word "countryman" again.)  These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.

But there is a softening and a warming at the end.  "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines:  "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way."  These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth:  "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (Italics added.)  Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:

"The poet finds that as between these two sources:  the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata.  In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch.  In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."

Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).

Here is the first poem in "The Rock."  Stevens did not place it there by chance.

                         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 of Wallace Stevens.

Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means."  I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line.  There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are."  Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"?  But it is the words of the poems that matter.  "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ."  In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Wallace Stevens,  Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing."  "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."

     From out of the darkness
Of the short night
     Comes the River Ōi.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.

Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Alpine

In a week such as this, when we are once again reminded of the presence of evil in the world, and are saddened at the loss of innocent lives, I suspect that many of us wonder:  how does one go about the business of living in times such as these?  We all know the answer to that question:  we must live in a manner that preserves and perpetuates everything that evil hopes to destroy.

Are poetry and art trivial and of no account in an age of barbarism?  Of course not.  They are never more important than in times such as these. The barbarians have no conception of what it means to be human.  Poetry and art embody all that is good and humane in civilization.  They stand as a direct reproach to, and a repudiation of, evil and barbarity.  Moreover, evil and barbarity cannot touch them.

                                     St. Ursanne

Leaving the viaduct on the left, and coming over the hill,
We came to a small town, four towers at the corners,
The streets narrow and not dark,
The children playing in green gardens by the waterside.

Was it at the Swan or the White Horse that we stopped?
We walked up to the church and the stone cloister,
Grass growing among the tangle of votive ribbons,
The wax flowers and the twisted wire.

We heard the town-crier ringing a bell under the town clock --
Something about a wandering cow and a job for a waggoner,
Then we looked at the watermill by the stone bridge,
And went back for a Rossi or a Cinzano.

That was at Eastertide, and the fields and meadows
Mellow with cowslips:  there were boys on bicycles
With bandoliers of jonquils, and there was an old lady
With a basket of primroses and violets.

It was a quiet town, and not yet broken,
The people kindly, and the priest "a good one as priests go,"
There was a football team, and a lad who enters from the country in the
          morning,
Singing:  Ohé Oh, Ohé Oh!

Michael Roberts, Orion Marches (Faber and Faber 1939).

The poem was first published in April of 1938, on the eve of that generation's age of barbarism.  The horror and suffering that followed are incomprehensible, and cannot be minimized or forgotten.  But do they render the poem irrelevant?  Quite the opposite.  The human world of the poem remains unchanged.

John Maclauchlan Milne (1886-1957)
"Mountainous Landscape with Fir Trees and a Lake" (1931)

In this post I intend to give mountains their due after my recent paeans to seasides.  But "St. Ursanne" brings to mind a wonderful seaside poem by   R. S. Thomas that has appeared here in the past.  In both poems, a quotidian scene casually unfolds before us.  (I do not use "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.)  Nothing of importance takes place.  Or so it seems.  Yet both scenes contain all of the beauty and truth of life.

                             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).

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Loch Tulla" (1933)

A good poem is a complex and ever-evolving thing.  It has its origin in the minute particulars of the poet's personal experience of the world.  Those particulars are reconstituted and transformed through the poet's act of imagination.  A good poem is also an act of preservation:  it preserves the poet's imaginative response to a unique set of particulars.  This begins as a wholly personal act on the part of the poet:  Michael Roberts and R. S. Thomas felt compelled to preserve their experiences of a particular day in St. Ursanne and of a particular day in Abersoch.  But, by reading their poems, we in turn preserve and perpetuate those experiences.

Each of us comes to a poem with our own unique set of feelings, thoughts, and circumstances, all of which influence how we react to the poem.  This does not mean that we change the poem into what we want it to be.  (This is where most modern "literary criticism" goes wrong.)  Rather, the poem, which was a wholly personal act of imagination and preservation by the poet, now awakens a wholly personal response in each of us.

At this point, one of the wonders and beauties of poetry emerges:  each poem carries with it the possibility of commencing a never-ending and ever-multiplying chain of human responses.

                                 Rioupéroux

High and solemn mountains guard Rioupéroux,
Small untidy village where the river drives a mill:
Frail as wood anemones, white and frail were you,
And drooping a little, like the slender daffodil.

Oh I will go to France again, and tramp the valley through,
And I will change these gentle clothes for clog and corduroy,
And work with the mill-hands of black Rioupéroux,
And walk with you, and talk with you, like any other boy.

James Elroy Flecker, The Bridge of Fire: Poems (Elkin Mathews 1907).

There you have it:  by reading "Rioupéroux" we have just preserved and prolonged a sequence of human interaction that began when the poem was published in 1907.  James Elroy Flecker died of tuberculosis in 1915 at the age of 30.  But we have just renewed his life as a poet.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Cioch na h-Oighe" (1942)

Bernard Spencer wrote the following lovely and moving poem after his wife Nora died of complications from tuberculosis in 1947.  Prior to her death, they had been planning a holiday in the Alps.

                          At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one "among the pines"?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder & Stoughton 1963).

The lines "darling, how did you think I could forget you,/you who for ever stayed behind?" refer to the couple's frequent separations due to Spencer's foreign postings while he was employed by the British Council.  This included a long separation during the Second World War, when he was stranded in Greece and Egypt, while she remained in England.

Thus ends our brief Alpine tour (with a detour to Wales).  St. Ursanne, Abersoch, Rioupéroux, and Courmayeur as seen through the eyes of poets: all beyond the reach of evil and untouchable by barbarism.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Lairig Ghru" (1931)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Littoral

The appearance of Robert Frost's "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" in my previous post got me to thinking about other poems with seaside settings. The comments that I made in my June 5 post about the calming effect of seascapes, and their ability to induce reverie, also come to mind.  Of course, any pleasing natural setting has the capacity to calm us and to lead us into reverie.  But I confess to being partial to the sort of reverie that seaside locations are wont to provoke.

In saying this, I do not intend to scant the particular evocative qualities of, say, mountains or forests or cornfields or streams.  For instance, I have said here before that I would be happy to spend eternity lying beneath the boughs of a tree on a sunny day as the fluttering leaves -- in kaleidoscopic shades of green, shot through with sunlight, set against a blue sky -- whisper and rustle overhead in a soft breeze.  "The wings/Of doves among dim branches far above."  "Noon a purple glow."

Still, the coming-to-the-end-of-things feeling that haunts seasides is unique in its reverie-inducing qualities.  The feeling is equivocal and complex.  You may feel that you have exhausted all possibilities by arriving at the margins of land.  On the other hand, you may feel, as you gaze outward, that the possibilities are endless.  It depends on the day.  It depends on how your life has turned out.

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first '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 mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

My beloved poets of the 1890s seem to have existed in a state of perpetual reverie.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."  Hence, it is not surprising that, in their poems, we often encounter them sunk in thought in lonely autumn seaside villages or reclining on deep-green hillside swards above deep-blue harbors.  I find this very alluring.

Brittany was the favorite place of escape for Ernest Dowson.  Here is the final stanza of his "In a Breton Cemetery," which has appeared here in the past:

And now night falls,
     Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
     A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
     And dear dead people with pale hands
     Beckon me to their lands.

But Dieppe, not Brittany, was the quintessential seaside destination of the poets of the Nineties.  It offered them the best of both fin de siècle worlds:  a hint of urban decadence (bars and casinos) in a dreamlike natural landscape consisting of, by turns, fog, blinding sunlight, and mist. All unfolding on the edge of eternity.  With lurid sunsets.

                       Twilight

The pale grey sea crawls stealthily
Up the pale lilac of the beach;
A bluer grey, the waters reach
To where the horizon ends the sea.

Flushed with a tinge of dusky rose,
The clouds, a twilit lavender,
Flood the low sky, and duskier
The mist comes flooding in, and flows

Into the twilight of the land,
And darkness, coming softly down,
Rustles across the fading sand
And folds its arms about the town.

Arthur Symons, Amoris Victima (Leonard Smithers 1897).  According to a note which accompanies the poem in his Collected Works, Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on August 22, 1895.

As I have observed in the past, no one does this sort of thing better than the Nineties poets.  Of course, they are regarded as quaint and old-fashioned caricatures by moderns, who can only evaluate the past in terms of their own debilitating and distancing irony.  They cannot conceive of the possibility that the poets of the Nineties wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

I sometimes imagine myself in my final years.  I see myself living in a small seaside town.  Any town, any sea, any country will do.  Each day I walk slowly along a promenade beside the sea.  The tides go in and out.  Along the promenade, at intervals, are deciduous trees.  Any type will do.  Each year, until the end, I watch the leaves come and go and the tides go in and out.  All possibilities will have been exhausted.  Yet the possibilities will still be endless.

         September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"

My daily walk takes me past a large meadow that slopes gently down for a quarter-mile or so to a bluff beside Puget Sound.  The meadow is covered with tall grasses, with a wild rose bush here and there.  At this time of year a single patch of purple-pink and purple-white sweet peas -- a rough circle about 30 or 40 feet in diameter -- is abloom in the center of the meadow, about halfway to the edge of the bluff.  Beyond the meadow the water stretches away to green-blue islands and to the Olympic Mountains.

The world is indeed Paradise.  Which we tend to forget.  I know I do.

                         Requies

O is it death or life
That sounds like something strangely known
In this subsiding out of strife,
This slow sea-monotone?

A sound, scarce heard through sleep,
Murmurous as the August bees
That fill the forest hollows deep
About the roots of trees.

O is it life or death,
O is it hope or memory,
That quiets all things with this breath
Of the eternal sea?

Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Elkin Matthews and John Lane 1892). Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on June 20, 1890.  It is part of a six-poem sequence titled "At Dieppe."

Richard Eurich, "Fawley Beach" (1939)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Humanity

The recent Brexit referendum and the ongoing presidential election campaign in the United States have got me to thinking about the politicization of daily life, a subject that I have considered here in the past. But let me be clear at the outset:  this is a non-political blog, and you will not hear any opinions from me on either Brexit or the presidential election. I am not a citizen of the United Kingdom, so Brexit is none of my business. As for the presidential election:  I intend to sit it out.

What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political "activists," and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be:  political animals.

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936.)

Be careful before you make any quick judgments on what the poem "means."  Depending upon how you read the poem, you may be a misanthrope or you may be a lover of humanity.  Or both.  Or neither.  In his fine study of Frost's poetry, Tim Kendall says this of the poem:  "This is what I can see happening, the poet tells his reader.  Make of it what you will."  Tim Kendall, The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), page 356.  But this much is certain:  you are standing there on the sand, dear reader, as are we all.

Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1948)

Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul.

                    Balances

Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock's nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas -- not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Gilbert Spencer
"The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (1952)

Each of us has a far better opinion of ourself than we ought to.  That is a given.  A part of human nature.  But, when you add politics to the mix, the opportunities for superciliousness expand exponentially.  Vast territories of grandiosity, oversimplification, and unexamined assumptions lie open for exploration.  And you can be sure that the politicized -- left, right, and center -- will undertake the expedition.

                                                     Learning

To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor  for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

W. B. Yeats could be as supercilious as they come.  But every once in a while he experienced a moment of clarity.

                                     Paudeen

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind
A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on the lonely height where all are in God's eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

"A single soul," yes.  Yet something else comes to mind as well.

                           Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

George Charlton, "Welsh Chapel" (1950)

I am well aware that there may be those among you who find this disquisition (diatribe?) to be supercilious in its own right.  Apathy and quietism as the world goes up in flames.  I see your point.  Ah, well, we are all in "the vale of Soul-making."  We each choose our own path.

                    Politics

You say a thousand things,
Persuasively,
And with strange passion hotly I agree,
And praise your zest,
And then
A blackbird sings
On April lilac, or fieldfaring men,
Ghostlike, with loaded wain,
Come down the twilit lane
To rest,
And what is all your argument to me?

Oh yes -- I know, I know,
It must be so --
You must devise
Your myriad policies,
For we are little wise,
And must be led and marshalled, lest we keep
Too fast a sleep
Far from the central world's realities.
Yes, we must heed --
For surely you reveal
Life's very heart; surely with flaming zeal
You search our folly and our secret need;
And surely it is wrong
To count my blackbird's song,
My cones of lilac, and my wagon team,
More than a world of dream.

But still
A voice calls from the hill --
I must away --
I cannot hear your argument to-day.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick and Jackson 1917).

But life is more than a matter of blackbirds singing and lilacs blooming, isn't it?  Thus, please forgive me as I return once again to some of the best advice that I have come across during my time on earth:

               . . . we should be careful

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

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

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Twilight

As I have noted here in the past, a few times each year I feel the urge to visit the misty, twilit (at  all hours of the day) world of the poets of the 1890s. There is no telling when this urge will arrive.  It is purely a matter of emotion.  Thus, as summer begins, I find myself immersed in the dreamy, death-haunted, yellow-turning-to-grey world of the fin de siècle.  On this occasion, however, my return is not prompted by free-floating emotion, but by coming across this poem:

               To a Minor Poet of 1899

To leave a verse concerning the sad hour
That awaits us at the limit of the day,
To bind your name to its sorrowful date
Of gold and of vague shade.  That's what you wanted.
With what passion as the day drew to its close
You labored on and on at the strange verse
That, until the universe disperses,
Would confirm the hour of the strange blue!
I do not know if ever you succeeded
Nor, vague elder brother, if you existed,
But I am alone and want oblivion
To restore your fleeting shade to the days
In the supreme already worn-out effort
Of words wherein the evening may yet be.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Charles Tomlinson), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

I suppose that, from the standpoint of "literary criticism" (whatever that is), all of the poets of the Nineties (with the exception of W. B. Yeats) are "minor poets."  But the whole concept of "major" and "minor" poets is useless.  As you have heard me say before, dear readers, it is the poem that is important, not the poet.

Perhaps this is what Borges is trying to tell us, at least in part.  What matters is "the supreme already worn-out effort/Of words wherein the evening may yet be."  Are all of the poems written by "major poets" good? Of course not.  Are all of the poems written by "minor poets" bad?  Of course not.  And so-called "minor poets" have written poems that are as good as the best poems ever written by "major poets."  Using these sorts of labels encourages laziness and discourages expeditions of discovery.

George Reid, "Evening" (1873)

I suspect that some assiduous scholar has tracked down which "minor poet of 1899" Borges had in mind.  The poet may be Argentinian, not English.  I have not looked into that.  Moreover, knowing Borges, it is entirely possible that the "minor poet" is an imaginary poet.

In the absence of a name, I would like to share two poems published in 1899 by my favorite poets of the Nineties:  Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  I believe that the poems capture the twilit atmosphere evoked by Borges in his poem:  "the sad hour/That awaits us at the limit of the day," the "sorrowful date/Of gold and of vague shade" and "the hour of the strange blue."  Symons and Dowson knew them well.

          On Inishmaan
           (Isles of Aran)

In the twilight of the year,
Here, about these twilight ways,
When the grey moth night drew near,
Fluttering on a faint flying,
I would linger out the day's
Delicate and moth-grey dying.

Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
Should enfold me, and release
Some old peace to dwell with me.
I would quiet the long crying
Of my heart with mournful peace,
The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).

"The grey moth night" has stayed with me since I first read the poem years ago.  When I come across four words such as these, I am reminded why I love poetry.  Beauty may be just around the corner.  And it will accompany you for the rest of your life.

Charles Napier Hemy, "Evening Grey" (1868)

In the following poem, Derek Mahon evokes the preoccupation (or is it infatuation?) with death that is so prevalent in the poetry of the 1890s. Mahon's tone may seem a bit dismissive, but, overall, I think he feels an affinity with the poets.  This is more apparent in his later poem "Remembering the '90s," which appears in The Yellow Book (The Gallery Press 1997), a collection that borrows its name from the iconic quarterly magazine of the fin de siècle.

             The Poets of the Nineties

Slowly, with the important carelessness
Of your kind, each spirit-sculptured face
Appears before me, eyes
Bleak from discoveries.

I had almost forgotten you had been,
So jealous was I of my skin
And the world with me.  How
Goes it with you now?

Did death and its transitions disappoint you,
And the worms you so looked forward to?
Perhaps you found that you had to queue
For a ticket into hell,
Despite your sprays of laurel.

You were all children in your helpless wisdom,
Retiring loud-mouths who would not be dumb --
Frustrated rural clergymen
Nobody would ordain.

Then ask no favour of reincarnation,
No yearning after the booze and whores --
For you, if anyone,
Have played your part
In holding nature up to art . . .

Be content to sprawl in your upland meadows,
Hair and boy-mouths stuck with flowers --
And rest assured, the day
Will be all sunlight, and the night
A dutiful spectrum of stars.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

When the poem was first published in Mahon's Night-Crossing (Oxford University Press 1968), it was titled "Dowson and Company."  The lines "Be content to sprawl in your upland meadows,/Hair and boy-mouths stuck with flowers" bring to mind Dowson's "Breton Afternoon," which begins with this stanza:

Here, where the breath of the scented-gorse floats through the sun-stained
          air,
On a steep hill-side, on a grassy ledge, I have lain hours long and heard
Only the faint breeze pass in a whisper like a prayer,
And the river ripple by and the distant call of a bird.

The fascination with "death and its transitions" noted by Mahon is reminiscent of the third stanza of "Breton Afternoon":

Out of the tumult of angry tongues, in a land alone, apart,
In a perfumed dream-land set betwixt the bounds of life and death,
Here will I lie while the clouds fly by and delve an hole where my heart
May sleep deep down with the gorse above and red, red earth beneath.

(A side-note:  Mahon writes of his own visit to Breton in a lovely four-poem sequence titled "Breton Walks," which may be found in Poems 1962-1978.)

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

Ernest Dowson's final volume of verse was published in 1899.  He died the following year at the age of 32.  The volume closes with this poem:

                            A Last Word

Let us go hence:  the night is now at hand;
     The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
     And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
     Laughter or tears, for we have only known
     Surpassing vanity:  vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.

Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
     To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
     Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands!  O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations: In Verse and Prose (Leonard Smithers 1899).

Dowson wrote what is perhaps the quintessential poem of the Nineties: "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam," which has appeared here on more than one occasion.  The poem ends with these lines:

     Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
     Within a dream.

It has always been thus.  The poets of the Nineties have said these things as well as they have ever been said.  There is nothing new under the sun, but we need poets to tell us these things in their own fashion, whatever their time and wherever their place.  To return to Borges:  "the supreme already worn-out effort/Of words wherein the evening may yet be."  "Worn-out?"  I wonder.  Restated, perhaps.  And timeless.

That man's life is but a dream --
is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How To Live, Part Twenty-Six: Dwelling

We live in a noisy world.  The noise comes both from outside and from inside.  All we need is a little peace and quiet.  A universal sentiment, don't you think?

Fortunately, we have it in our power to shut out the noise.  Right at this moment.  To cite but one example:  pay no attention to the News of the World.  It is easily done.  Turning off the internal noise is much more difficult.  Often, at the start of my daily walk, I say to myself:  "No thinking."  I inevitably fail.

T'ao Yüan-ming (whose nom de plume was "T'ao Ch'ien," meaning, roughly, "the Recluse") left his position in government to live in the countryside.  His was not a life of comfortable retreat:  he worked as a farmer and had a large family.  His poetry reflects a sense of contentment and tranquility, with occasional bumps in the road (the inevitable consequence of making one's living as a farmer).

I built my hut in a place where people live,
and yet there's no clatter of carriage or horse.
You ask me how that could be?
With a mind remote, the region too grows distant.
I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
see the southern mountain, calm and still.
The mountain air is beautiful at close of day,
birds on the wing coming home together.
In all this there's some principle of truth,
but try to define it and you forget the words.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).  The poem is untitled.

The truths that one finds in poetry are not limited to a particular place or time.  A conversation between T'ao Ch'ien, a Chinese poet of the 4th and 5th centuries, and Walter de la Mare, an English poet of the 20th century, may, I hope, demonstrate the universality of poetic truth.  Think of de la Mare's poems in this post as both a counterpoint to, and an echo of, T'ao Ch'ien's poem.

                         Days and Moments

The drowsy earth, craving the quiet of night,
Turns her green shoulder from the sun's last ray;
Less than a moment in her solar flight
Now seems, alas! thou fleeting one, life's happiest day.

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

Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

T'ao Ch'ien possessed deep knowledge of Taoism.  Hence, it is not surprising that the final two lines of his poem are reminiscent of Lao Tzu's well-known statement from the Tao te Ching (as translated by Arthur Waley):  "Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know." Here is another translation of T'ao Ch'ien's poem:

I have built my cottage amid the realm of men
But I hear no din of horses or carriages.
You might ask, "How is this possible?"
A remote heart creates its own hermitage!
Picking chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
I perceive the Southern Mountain in the distance.
Marvelous is the mountain air at sunset!
The flitting birds return home in pairs,
In these things is the essence of truth --
I wish to explain but have lost the words.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Angela Jung Palandri), in Angela Jung Palandri, "The Taoist Vision: A Study of T'ao Yüan-ming's Nature Poetry," Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 15 (1988).

Some truths cannot be put into words.  These truths are usually the most important truths.  "Forget[ting] the words" or "los[ing] the words" is not necessarily a bad thing:  it may be a sign that you have learned something important.  An observation by Ludwig Wittgenstein (which has appeared here on more than one occasion) complements Lao Tzu and T'ao Ch'ien quite well:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness), Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922).

                                      Solitude

     Space beyond space:  stars needling into night:
     Through rack, above, I gaze from Earth below --
Spinning in unintelligible quiet beneath
     A moonlit drift of cloudlets, still as snow.

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

Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)

The fourth line of T'ao Ch'ien's poem contains the Chinese character xin. The same character is known as kokoro in Japanese.  The character is a wonderful one:  in both Chinese and Japanese it can mean "heart," but it can also mean "mind."  It can also carry connotations of "spirit," "soul," or "core," which seems appropriate:  heart-mind; mind-heart.  That evanescent and ungraspable thing.  Animula vagula blandula.

Burton Watson elects to translate xin as "mind," as does David Hinton in the following translation of the poem.  Palandri, on the other hand, translates xin as "heart."  Arthur Waley, who produced the first translation of this poem into English (which appears at the end of this post), also elects to use "heart."  This division of opinion suggests that we have no word in English to match the beauty, implication, and subtlety of xin (or kokoro).

I live here in a village house without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,

and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself

a distant place.  Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain

far off:  air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home.  All this means something,

something absolute:  whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002).

                            Unforeseen

Darkness had fallen.  I opened the door:
And lo, a stranger in the empty room --
A marvel of moonlight upon wall and floor . . .
The quiet of mercy?  Or the hush of doom?

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

"Admirable is a person who has nothing that hampers his mind."  Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashō (Twayne 1970), page 118.  And why not this as well, given our consideration of xin and kokoro:  "Admirable is a person who has nothing that hampers his heart."  Perhaps this is what T'ao Ch'ien is getting at in line 4:  "a mind remote" (Watson); "a remote heart" (Palandri); "the mind dwells apart" (Hinton).  And, from Arthur Waley in the translation below:  "a heart that is distant."

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

This remoteness or distance of heart or mind is not a matter of coldness, indifference, or self-absorption.  It is a matter of the mind or the heart not being hampered or stifled by the noise of the World, and by the noise that comes from within our ever-buzzing brain.  "Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?" Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 140.

                                      Night

That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Robin Tanner, "The Wicket Gate" (1977)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Other Worlds

Apart from my first eleven years, I have spent my life along salt-water shores:  the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound (an appendage of the Pacific), and the Andaman Sea (for two years).  Hence, I have gotten used to having a body of water at my shoulder.  Mind you, I am not suggesting that this is a superior way to live.  For me, it is simply a matter of happenstance, and something that I have grown accustomed to.

Still, one cannot underestimate the calming effect of having an expanse of water to look out on, whether it be bright blue and glittering, iron grey, or any of the infinite variations in between.  The sight has lightened my soul on innumerable occasions.  "Given my heart/A change of mood/And saved some part/Of a day I had rued," as Robert Frost wrote of a different landscape.

"The sea is a mirror, not only to the clouds, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but to all one's dreams, to all one's speculations. . . . The sea tells us that everything is changing and that nothing ever changes, that tides go out and return, that all existence is a rhythm; neither calm nor storm breaks the rhythm, only hastens or holds it back for a moment."

Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands (1918), page 296.

Yet there is, withal, an abiding otherness to the sea.

          The Tuft of Kelp

All dripping in tangles green,
     Cast up by a lonely sea
If purer for that, O Weed,
     Bitterer, too, are ye?

Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).

I have often encountered tufts of kelp along the strand, high and dry amid the flotsam and jetsam, and they do have a strange and otherworldly aspect to them.  They emanate a sense of loneliness that goes beyond being out of their element.

John Brett, "The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs" (1871)

The sea's impassive face may induce serenity and reverie, but that impassivity is a mask:  upon it and below it lie strangeness and mystery. Arthur Symons speaks of the sea as a mirror of the sky, but I think of the sea and the sky as parallel and complementary unfathomable worlds whose depths we can never plumb.  We mustn't be seduced or misled by Science, which is always willing to provide us with "explanations" that tell us nothing.  Scientists possess no knowledge that can touch the secrets of the sea and the sky.

                        By the Sea

Why does the sea moan evermore?
     Shut out from heaven it makes its moan,
It frets against the boundary shore;
     All earth's full rivers cannot fill
     The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.

Sheer miracles of loveliness
     Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
     Blow flower-like; just enough alive
     To blow and multiply and thrive.

Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
     Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
     Are born without a pang, and die
     Without a pang, and so pass by.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).  Rossetti uses the word "blow" (lines 9 and 10) in its common pre-20th century sense:  "to blossom."

John Brett, "Southern Coast of Guernsey" (1875)

When I went out for a walk this past Wednesday afternoon, the sky was a dull grey-white.  I found myself wishing for a brilliant blue sky.  I then realized how misguided I was.  The world is always just what it is, and is perfect just as it is.  Who am I to cavil if it fails to meet my expectations?  I felt ungrateful.

As I walked, I noticed how lovely the deepening green boughs of the trees looked swaying against the grey sky.  The swallows paid the dull sky no mind:  they curved and dived above the tall wild grasses in the meadows, taking their evening meal.  "Sheer miracles of loveliness" indeed surround us on all sides and at all times.

                               The World Below the Brine

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle,
          openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of
          light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and
          the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to
          the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with
          his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and
          the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
          breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by
          beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1860).

Whitman and Rossetti lived in the 19th century, a time that lacked our access to the technology that now enables us to see in vivid detail the heretofore "unlooked-on bed" of "the world below the brine."  But mere seeing is not the end of the story, is it?  The wonder expressed by Whitman and Rossetti remains, for that wonder is a product of the recognition of the other mysterious beings with whom we share the world.

John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)

Today, I was given a sunny day, although I had not asked for it.  Beside the path down which I walked, I saw white field daisies, pink-purple sweet peas, and the white blossoms of blackberry bushes.  Puget Sound and the sky were blue on top of blue, merging in the distance.  Which was mirroring which?

"[A]s ecstasy is only possible to one who is conscious of the possibility of despair, so the sea, as it detaches us from the world and our safeguards and our happy forgetfulnesses, and sets us by ourselves, as momentary as the turn of a wave, and mattering hardly more to the universe, gives us, if we will take them, moments of almost elemental joy."

Arthur Symons, "In a Northern Bay," Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands, page 297.

I would respectfully disagree with Symons to this extent:  it is not solely the sea that has the capacity to provide us with "elemental joy."  Nor would I qualify "elemental joy" with "almost."

The message of all these worlds -- earth, water, and sky -- is the same: Never take anything for granted.

     On the sandy beach,
Footprints:
     Long is the spring day.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 48.

John Brett, "The Norman Archipelago (Channel Islands)" (1885)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Choristers And Companions

While out for an afternoon walk this past week, I realized that I often fail to listen to what is going on around me.  My path takes me through meadows and wooded areas in Discovery Park, which, although it is a city park, is akin to a nature reserve.  According to the Seattle Audubon Society, more than 250 species of birds have been seen in the Park, including thrushes, warblers, wrens, swallows, chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, tanagers, towhees, vireos, and waxwings.  And, of course, robins, sparrows, jays, and crows.

Not surprisingly, therefore, my walks take place amid a chorus of singing, twittering, chirping, chattering, whistling, and warbling.  But too often I am daydreaming, and the music passes me by.

"It was widely rumored that certain persons had heard celestial music coming down from heaven around two o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day.  And they say it has been heard every eighth night since.  Some told me in all seriousness that they actually heard the music at such and such a place on such and such a night.  Others dismissed it as simply a prank played by the wanton wind.  I, for one, was inclined to take the idea seriously, but could neither accept it as completely true or reject it as absolutely impossible.  For heaven and earth are filled with strange and mysterious powers. . . . In any event, I found myself intrigued, and invited a group of my friends to come to my humble cottage on the nineteenth day of March.  We all listened intently, from early evening on, but we heard nothing until the first sunbeams touched the far end of the eastern sky. Then all at once we heard a voice -- we heard music -- coming from the plum tree near my window.
                                     
                                             Only birds
                                        sing the music of heaven
                                             in this world."

Issa (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), in Nobuyuki Yuasa, A Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru (University of California 1972). Oraga Haru was written in 1819.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

In his poem "Bird-Language" (which has appeared here previously), W. H. Auden speculates that "fear . . . rage, bravado, and lust" may be heard in "the words/Uttered on all sides by birds," but he ultimately concludes that "All other notes that birds employ/Sound like synonyms for joy."  Yes, I concede that all is not sweetness and light in the world of bird communication.  Yet, compared with human communication, all bird conversations (and soliloquies) sound like celestial music to me.  (Save, perhaps, for the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays.)

Call me sentimental, but I am inclined to the view that those unseen choristers -- hidden off in the tall grasses of the meadows or up in the leafy boughs of trees -- are indeed motivated by joy.  Joy and beneficence.

     To the Nightingale, and Robin Red-Breast

When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
Thou pitiful, and pretty Philomel:
And when I'm laid out for a corse, then be
Thou sexton (red-breast) for to cover me.

Robert Herrick, Poem 279, Hesperides (1648).  In the third line, Herrick uses the word "corse" rather than "corpse."

Herrick was wont to revisit his favorite themes.  He was particularly fond of robins.

                 To Robin Red-breast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this,
     Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Poem 50, Ibid.

The image of birds providing kind offices to the dead was a common one in the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan periods.  In the following poem by John Webster, those offices are performed by the robin and the wren.  (In a moment, we shall hear of the wren from Issa.)

                              A Dirge

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

John Webster, from the play The White Devil (1612).

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

I am well aware that the notion of birds as heavenly choristers is looked upon askance by modern products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." These moderns are equally troubled by the notion of a human soul.  For them, human beings, and human "reason" and "rationality," are the measure of all things.  How odd and how sad it is to constrict humanity, the World, and existence in such a fashion.

I am not in a position to make pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of heaven or of the soul.  Who would presume to do so?  These things are not matters of theology.  Nor are they matters of science. Theology and science both posit a certainty that does not exist.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                              Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

Sooner or later, one comes to the realization that there are no certainties in life.  Except one.  Our death.  Anyone who tells you otherwise -- theologians, scientists, politicians, social or political "activists" of any stripe -- is dissembling.  They know nothing.

In fact, this uncertainty is a glorious thing.  It is why we turn to poets and artists, poems and paintings.

Will we spend eternity listening to birds carrying on conversations above our graves?  Nobody knows.

     Look!  this lonely grave,
With the wren
     That is always here.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.

Fairlie Harmar, "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)