Saturday, February 6, 2016


In 1802, Dorothy and William Wordsworth were living at Grasmere in the Lake District.  Dorothy's journal entry for April 29 of that year contains this passage:

"We then went to John's Grove, sate a while at first.  Afterwards William lay, and I lay in the trench under the fence -- he with his eyes shut and listening to the waterfalls and the birds.  There was no one waterfall above another -- it was a sound of waters in the air -- the voice of the air.  William heard me breathing and rustling now and then but we both lay still, and unseen by one another -- he thought that it would be as sweet thus to lie so in the grave, to hear the peaceful sounds of the earth and just to know that one's dear friends were near."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (edited by Pamela Woof) (Oxford University Press 2002), page 92 (italics in original).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

The poetic conceit that death is akin to a peaceful sleep is an ancient one, as is its converse:  that sleep is a peaceful rehearsal for death.  I suspect that some moderns among us feel that these conceits are clichés that ought to be dispensed with.  Not I.  Clichés nearly always have an element of human truth in them.  They ought to be cultivated and preserved.

These chairs they have no words to utter,
No fire is in the grate to stir or flutter,
The ceiling and floor are mute as a stone,
My chamber is hush'd and still,
     And I am alone,
     Happy and alone.

Oh who would be afraid of life,
The passion the sorrow and the strife,
     When he may be
     Shelter'd so easily?
May lie in peace on his bed
Happy as they who are dead.

          Half an hour afterwards
I have thoughts that are fed by the sun.
     The things which I see
     Are welcome to me,
     Welcome every one:
I do not wish to lie
     Dead, dead,
Dead without any company;
     Here alone on my bed,
With thoughts that are fed by the sun,
And hopes that are welcome every one,
     Happy am I.

O Life, there is about thee
A deep delicious peace,
I would not be without thee,
     Stay, oh stay!
Yet be thou ever as now,
Sweetness and breath with the quiet of death,
Be but thou ever as now,
     Peace, peace, peace.

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Four (Oxford University Press 1947).

The poem is untitled.  It was not published during Wordsworth's lifetime. It was apparently composed in April of 1802, prior to the incident described by Dorothy in her April 29 journal entry.  This time frame is suggested by the following passage in her entry for April 22, which describes a walk taken that day by her, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

"A fine mild morning -- we walked into Easedale.  The sun shone. . . . The waters were high for there had been a great quantity of rain in the night. . . I then went to the single holly behind that single rock in the field and sate upon the grass till they came from the waterfall.  I saw them there and heard William flinging stones into the river whose roaring was loud even where I was.  When they returned William was repeating the poem 'I have thoughts that are fed by the sun.'  It had been called to his mind by the dying away of the stunning of the waterfall when he came behind a stone."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, page 89.

"I have thoughts that are fed by the sun" is a wonderful line.  It is worth remembering that Wordsworth had written the first four stanzas of what later came to be known as "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," as well as "My heart leaps up when I behold," just a few weeks earlier, in the final days of March.  It was clearly a charmed time.  "I have thoughts that are fed by the sun" seems to perfectly describe what Wordsworth was experiencing during this period.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"

As one who is fond of napping, reverie, daydreaming, and the border between waking and sleeping, Wordsworth's meditation on peace and quiet makes perfect sense to me.  Of course, I fully realize that there are practical considerations:  we do need to get out of bed at some point.

In doing so, perhaps we should seek an equilibrium between "thoughts that are fed by the sun" and "sweetness and breath with the quiet of death." You'll not find me zip-lining through the canopy of a rain forest or across a deep desert gorge any time soon.  But there are ways of going about this that encourage reverie, and that may enable us to attain "peace, peace, peace," even if only momentarily.


I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me.  But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
beside it.
                  There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide.  Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water's
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Park and Ruined Abbey" (1961)

If we attend to him, Ivor Gurney continually reminds us that we have it in us to find havens of peace under any circumstances.  Given the difficulties and sorrows of his troubled life, Gurney's ability to fashion these havens serves as a humbling example to the rest of us.  Somehow, he seems to have been able to recover -- if only for a short while -- "thoughts that are fed by the sun" and, with them, some small measure of peace.

The poems that preserve these moments are extremely touching, for we come to them with a sense of (acknowledging that we can never truly know) what he went through to reach these brief respites of serenity. The feeling of hard-won tranquility in these poems is palpable, and moving.  Reading them, I can only hope that, at times, he found his long-sought peace.

                         The Shelter from the Storm

And meantime fearing snow the flocks are brought in,
They are in the barn where stone tiles and wood shelter
From the harm shield; where the rosy-faced farmer's daughter
Goes to visit them.

She pats and fondles all her most favourite first.
Then after that the shivering and unhappy ones --
Spreads hay, looks up at the noble and gray roof vast
And says "This will stop storms."

Her mind is with her books in the low-ceilinged kitchen
Where the twigs blaze. -- and she sees not sheep alone
of the Cotswold, but in the Italian shelters songs repeating
Herdsmen kind, from the blast gone.

Ivor Gurney, in George Walter (editor), Selected Poems (J. M. Dent 1996). The text is as it appears in the original manuscript.  The poem was probably written by Gurney in September of 1926, or thereabouts, although this is not certain.  Ibid, page 105.  It was not published in his lifetime.

The following untitled poem is a lovely companion piece to "The Shelter from the Storm."

Soft rain beats upon my windows
Hardly hammering.
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war.

That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And the roar of the elms. . . .
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry's truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.  The poem was likely written by Gurney in 1926 or 1927. Ibid, page 105.  It was not published in his lifetime.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Winter Night

There is nothing like a vast winter night sky to remind you of your place in the universe.  Such a vista might seem companionable during the December holiday season, when the neighborhood houses are decorated with colorful lights, and bright, bedecked Christmas trees can be seen in nearly every living room window.  The immensity and the depth of silence of that canopy seem manageable under those circumstances.  But the night sky tells a different story at the deep end of January.

                 A Winter Night

It was a chilly winter's night;
     And frost was glitt'ring on the ground,
And evening stars were twinkling bright;
     And from the gloomy plain around
               Came no sound,
But where, within the wood-girt tower,
The churchbell slowly struck the hour;

As if that all of human birth
     Had risen to the final day,
And soaring from the worn-out earth
     Were called in hurry and dismay,
               Far away;
And I alone of all mankind
Were left in loneliness behind.

William Barnes, Poems, Partly of Rural Life, in National English (1846).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Snow Falling on a Town"

However, we ought not to get too carried away with these dark-of-night contemplations.  An apostrophe on the "metaphysical" or "existential" loneliness of humanity in a mute and empty cosmos would be barren and abstract.  Rather, a clear winter night -- starry, vast, and eternally cold -- is simply a salutary reminder of how puny each of us is.  That's it.  Well, yes, loneliness does enter into it.  But it is the homely, small-scale, and individual soul-loneliness that we all experience on a daily basis.  "When the night-processions flit/Through the mind."  That sort of thing.  With a sharper, chillier edge.

                       The Hounds

Far off a lonely hound
Telling his loneliness all round
To the dark woods, dark hills, and darker sea;

And, answering, the sound
Of that yet lonelier sea-hound
Telling his loneliness to the solitary stars.

Hearing, the kennelled hound
Some neighbourhood and comfort found,
And slept beneath the comfortless high stars.

But that wild sea-hound
Unkennelled, called all night all round --
The unneighboured and uncomforted cold sea.

John Freeman, Stone Trees and Other Poems (Selwyn and Blount 1916).

I can sometimes hear sea lions barking in the night down along the shores of Puget Sound.  Are they "telling [their] loneliness all round" or "to the solitary stars"?  I find their voices to be comforting.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1918-1924)

When it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe, R. S. Thomas is the poet to go to.  Thomas's life-long waiting and waiting for a single whisper from something out there -- God, of course -- is perhaps the key theme of his poetry.  An odd thing to say of someone who was an Anglican priest, isn't it?  Did he ever hear the whisper?  I don't know.  But his waiting and listening led to the creation of a great many beautiful poems.

                     The Other

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away.  It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless.  And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

R. S. Thomas, Destinations (Celandine Press 1985).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"

Now, having just said that R. S. Thomas "is the poet to go to" when it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe, what am I to do with Robert Frost?  An amendment is in order:  R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost are the poets to go to when it comes to the silence and the emptiness of the universe.

I've never had the sense that Frost is waiting upon God, however.  His intimate knowledge of silence and emptiness -- the universe's and his own -- is wholly personal.   Or so it seems to me.  "Acquainted with the Night." This acquaintance is not necessarily comforting.  "Harrowing" is the word that comes to mind.

                         Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

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

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1911-1914)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Resting Place

Given the subject matter of this post, a disclaimer may be appropriate:  I am not, at the moment, brooding over mortality.  Actually, I am feeling quite cheerful.  "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."

Yet, come to think of it, the two are not mutually exclusive, are they?  It is possible to be cheerful and, at the same time, to brood over (or at least be mindful of) mortality.  In fact, that may be an ideal state of being.  But I am not that wise.  Hence, this post is simply a matter of one thing leading to another.

          To the Passenger

If I lie unburied Sir,
These my Reliques, pray inter.
'Tis religion's part to see
Stones or turfs to cover me.
One word more I had to say;
But it skills not; go your way;
He that wants a burial room
For a Stone, has Heaven his Tomb.

Robert Herrick, Poem 821, Hesperides (1648).

"Passenger" means "passer-by" in this context.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 724.  "It skills not" (line 6) means "it doesn't matter."  Ibid.  I presume that "wants" (line 7) means "lacks" in this context.  Herrick italicizes the final line, which, in accordance with his usual practice, signifies a quotation or a paraphrase from a classical source.  It has been suggested that the source is Lucan, Pharsalia, 7.819, as quoted (and translated) by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Second Partition, Section 3, Member 5, Subsection 1):  "the Canopy of heaven covers him that hath no tomb."  Ibid.

Claude Hayes, "Evensong" (1903)

The thought of having Heaven (or the heavens) as one's tomb puts me in mind of the many touching epigrams about the deaths of unfortunate mariners that are contained in The Greek Anthology.  Most often, the mariner's comrades, or a stranger who happens upon the washed-up corpse while walking along the shore, are able to bury the mariner and erect a monument to his memory.  However, sometimes the seafarer remains for ever lost at sea.

No dust, no paltry marble for his grave
Has Erasippus, but the wide sea wave.
For with his ship he sank.  His bones decay --
But where, the cormorant alone can say.

Glaucus (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley, Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849), page 70.

Here is a prose translation of the epigram:

"Not dust nor the light weight of a stone, but all this sea that thou beholdest is the tomb of Erasippus; for he perished with his ship, and in some unknown place his bones moulder, and the seagulls alone know them to tell."

Glaucus (translated by J. W. Mackail), in J. W. Mackail, Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1906), page 156.

Henry Anthony (1817-1886), "Evensong" (1873)

Wars on distant frontiers are a constant presence in classical Chinese poetry, and the prospect of a lonely death far from home and family is the theme of many poems.


Man -- pitiful insect,
out the gate with fears of death in his breast,
a corpse fallen in narrow valleys,
white bones that no one gathers up.

Anonymous (circa 6th to 7th century) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (Columbia University Press 1971), page 63.  The meaning of the phrase "Ch'i-yü-ko" is "uncertain."  Ibid, page 62.  The poem "was written to be sung."  Ibid.

Classical Greek and Chinese poetry share a surface matter-of-factness and simplicity that is underlaid by, and intertwined with, great emotion.  There is a dignity, seemliness, and reticence to this combination that makes the poetry extremely moving.  This may explain why the long-dead Greek and Chinese poets seem to be speaking directly to us, and for us.  We moderns are not so articulate, nor are we so wise.  We have forgotten a great deal.

James Webb, "A Bit of Sussex" (1877)

As I have remarked in the past, one of the wonderful things about reading poetry is how one poem can become a stepping stone to another.  The final line of the following poem has stayed with me for years.  I thought of it after I read Herrick's lines "He that wants a burial room/For a stone, has Heaven his Tomb."

                    A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, in Leonard Clark (editor), The Collected Poems of Andrew Young (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

"Buried within the blue vault of the air."  Well, what can you say about that? Nothing need be said, but I will say something anyway:  this is why we read poetry.

James Northbourne, "Evening" (1913)

In this context, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite poems.  It has appeared here on more than one occasion, but its final two lines are particularly apt.

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
     In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
     Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
     Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
     And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).

When all is said and done, being untombed is not necessarily a fate to be dreaded.  The thought of being "buried within the blue vault of the air" does not trouble me.  If only cormorants or seagulls know where my bones lie, I have no objection.  A resting place "where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush" sounds peaceful and lovely.  Like most everything, it is all a matter of perspective.  There are other considerations.

                              On Himself

Some parts may perish; die thou canst not all:
The most of thee shall scape the funeral.

Robert Herrick, Poem 554, Hesperides (1648).  "Scape" appears in the original.  The final line may be an echo of Horace (Odes, Book III, Ode 30): "I shall not all die, and a large part of me will escape the Goddess of Death."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 675.

Henry Anthony, "A Country Churchyard"

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Autumn Interlude

Please bear with me, dear readers.  I've been dwelling in China for the past week.  In autumn.  About 1,200 or so years ago.

                              Autumn Begins

Autumn begins unnoticed.  Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,

summer's blaze giving way.  My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002), page 42.

Meng Hao-jan spent most of his life in and around Hsiang-yang (also known as "Xiangyang"), which is in the modern-day province of Hubei.  It is a region that was known for its mountains and rivers.  Meng Hao-jan's character and poems were an important influence on the four great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907):  Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i.  Li Po wrote the following poem about him:

     At Yellow Crane Tower Taking Leave of Meng Hao-jan
                          As He Sets Off for Kuang-Ling

My old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears in the blue-green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky.

Li Po (701-762) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 211.

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

I suspect that many of us share the urge to now and then visit another place and another time in the company of our favorite poets.  Hence, for some accountable reason, I will periodically feel a sudden hankering to visit Brittany with Ernest Dowson, Cornwall with Arthur Symons, Dorset with Thomas Hardy, Japan with Bashō, Alexandria with C. P. Cavafy, et cetera. Escapism?  No doubt.

This past week, autumn in ancient China has been calling me.

            Alone Beside the Autumn River

All spring, my sorrows grew like lotus leaves.
Now they wither as my autumn sadness grows.

Grief is as long and wide as life.
Watch the autumn river.  Listen to it flow.

Li Shang-yin (813-858) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 202.

The first three lines of the poem may be too morose for some tastes.  But they are beautifully morose, don't you think?  In any event, the final line redeems all sorrow, sadness, and grief.  One of the wonderful features of classical Chinese poetry is that it continually reminds us to direct our attention to the lovely particulars that lie in front of us, at this moment. What is in front of us at this moment puts everything into perspective. Time-bound timelessness.

Duncan Grant, "Charleston Barn" (1942)

Yes, these poetic journeys to strange lands may indeed include an element of escapism, especially if they also involve time travel.  After all, who, on occasion, does not wish to abandon one's current place and time?  Yet it is usually the case that these excursions, if they are taken in the company of good poets, lead to the proverbial "shock of recognition":  Ah!  I know that World.  We must return to the here and now, but all of these places and times continue to dwell within us, reminding us of the continuity of life and of human experience.

                              The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.

W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)

Thus, autumn in China 1,200 years ago does not seem at all strange to me. Mind you, this has nothing whatsoever to do with any special powers on my part:  it is entirely attributable to the honesty, sensitivity, and artistry of the poets. Call it a cliché, but, when I read their poems, their world feels like my world.  Another cliché:  I have no doubt that they are telling the truth.  "True and not feigning."  As far as what it means to make one's way through life, nothing has changed over the past twelve centuries.

     Lu-lung Village, Autumn

Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.

Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.

A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.

You want to know my name?
A hill.  A tree.  An empty drifting boat.

Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, page 212.

Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)

Friday, January 8, 2016


This is not a political blog.  However, I have, on occasion, bemoaned the fact that our world has become overly politicized.  Any sort of holier-than-thou posturing or hectoring -- from any direction -- leaves me cold.  Life is too short.

All of this is by way of introduction to a poem by Edmund Blunden.  To wit: please note that I am definitely not offering the poem as a "political" statement on any "current events."  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog will likely be aware of my distrust of the modern gods of Progress and Science and political utopianism.  You are certainly welcome to read the poem in that context.  But, of course, it speaks perfectly well for itself, and certainly needs no gloss from me.

                         Minority Report

That you have given us others endless means
To modify the dreariness of living,
Machines which even change men to machines;
That you have been most honourable in giving;
That thanks to you we roar through space at speed
Past dreams of wisest science not long since,
And listen in to news we hardly need,
And rumours which might make Horatius wince,
Of modes of sudden death devised by you,
And promising protection against those --
All this and more I know, and what is due
Of praise would offer, couched more fitly in prose.
But such incompetence and such caprice
Clog human nature that, for all your kindness,
Some shun loud-speakers as uncertain peace,
And fear flood-lighting is a form of blindness;
The televisionary world to come,
The petrol-driven world already made,
Appear not to afford these types a crumb
Of comfort.  You will win; be not dismayed.
Let those pursue their fantasy, and press
For obsolete illusion, let them seek
Mere moonlight in the last green loneliness;
Your van will be arriving there next week.

Edmund Blunden, An Elegy and Other Poems (Cobden-Sanderson 1937).

We now have our "televisionary world," don't we?  Blunden was correct on all counts.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was thinking along similar lines at around the same time that Blunden wrote his poem:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.  Typically it constructs.  It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.  The passage was likely written by Wittgenstein in the 1930s.

Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

I suspect that "Minority Report" comes to mind because I continue to be haunted by the lovely lines from George Mackay Brown that appeared in my Christmas Day post:

We are folded all
In a green fable.

George Mackay Brown, from "Christmas Poem," The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Edwin Muir, Brown's fellow Orkney Islander, also took a wider, and longer, view of things.

               One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world's great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time's handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

Edwin Muir, One Foot in Eden (Faber and Faber 1956).

Richard Eurich, " Snow Shower over Skyreholme" (1973)

I agree with everything that Blunden says about our "televisionary world." George Mackay Brown expressed similar feelings:  "The twentieth century has covered us with a gray wash.  Newspapers and cars and television have speeded up the process.  It could not be otherwise."  George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing (John Murray 1997), page 166.  Perhaps this is the world that Muir has in mind when he speaks of "tares" amidst the corn, "famished field and blackened tree," and "beclouded skies."

Still, we ought not to leave it at that.  As I have noted here on previous occasions, each succeeding generation is convinced that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  But is this so?  Brown and Muir are aware of -- and have not given up on -- the realm of existence that has nothing whatever to do with Progress, Science, political utopianism, and their attendant evils.  In this realm, "building an ever more complicated structure" is of no moment.  All such structures come to dust.

Muir reminds us:  "Strange blessings never in Paradise/Fall from these beclouded skies."  Right here, right now.  However bleak things may sometimes seem.

Richard Eurich, "The Rose" (1960)

Wittgenstein is exactly right about Progress:  "Typically it constructs."  In our time, Progress and Science and political utopianism are devoted to engineering.  Devoted to engineering what?  "Ideal" societies and "ideal" human beings, of course.  A presumptuous and laughable goal.  Doomed to failure.

Why doomed?  Because the world we live in is, and will always be, "the vale of Soul-making."  The human soul is not subject to engineering.  Animula vagula blandula.  "Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite."  "Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing."  What do social engineers know about the human soul?  It is forever beyond their narrow and feeble grasp.

                    -- I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd
By heady elements, for no man knows:
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideon's fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out:  my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967). These lines are an untitled fragment, perhaps from a play that Hopkins intended to write.  Ibid, page 304.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Thursday, December 31, 2015


The other day, as I sat idly musing, it occurred to me that the number of New Years that I have greeted thus far in my life now greatly exceeds the number of New Years that I am likely to greet from here on out.  Yes, I know:  Lovely thought, that!  But this is the sort of thing that happens when one idly muses.

We duly note observations such as these and then continue on.  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  (Philip Larkin, "Aubade.")  Or something along those lines.

I am reminded of a haiku that I try to revisit each year around this time (and which appeared here a year ago).

     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.

Blyth suggests that Jokun is referring to the Japanese tradition in which, commencing at midnight on New Year's Day, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the unhealthy desires that we should strive to rid ourselves of.  This makes perfect sense.  Despite "implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death," there is always room for improvement while time -- ever tolling, of course -- remains.

We have no choice in the matter, do we?  Hence, no whining is allowed. But we ought to remain mindful.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Stromness Harbour"

The particulars of day-to-day life in the Orkney Islands provide the basis for the poems and prose of George Mackay Brown.  But there is nothing parochial about the Orcadian world of which he writes.  It stretches from the present back to the arrival of the Vikings, and then disappears into a mysterious (apparently Celtic) pre-history.

It is a time-bound, yet timeless, world.  Although most of us have never been there, it is our World.

                         Gray's Pier

I lay on Gray's pier, a boy
And I caught a score of sillocks one morning

I laboured there, all one summer
And we built the Swan

A June day I brought to my door
Jessie-Ann, she in white

I sang the Barleycorn ballad
Between a Hogmanay star and New Year snow

The Swan haddock-heavy from the west --
Women, cats, gulls!

I saw from the sea window
The March fires on Orphir

I followed, me in black
Jessie-Ann to the kirkyard

I smoke my pipe on Gray's pier now
And listen to the Atlantic

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Gray's Pier is located in Stromness on Mainland, in the Orkney Islands. "Sillocks" are young coalfish.  "Hogmanay" is the Scots word for New Year's Eve.  Orphir is a parish on Mainland.

Donald Morrison, "Stromness Pier" (1993)

The following poem provides the other half of the Orcadian world. (Although the phrase "the other half" is perhaps too reductive and too simplistic:  the "halves" are interwoven and inseparable.  Earth and stone and sea and sky.)


Come soon.  Break from the pure ring of silence,
A swaddled wail

You venture
With jotter and book and pencil to school

An ox man, you turn
Black pages on the hill

Make your vow
To the long white sweetness under blessing and bell

A full harvest,
Utterings of gold at the mill

Old yarns, old malt, near the hearthstone,
A breaking of ice at the well

Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

In another poem, Brown writes of "Crossings of net and ploughshare,/Fishbone and crust."  ("Black Furrow, Gray Furrow," in Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (Hogarth Press 1971).)

Ian MacInnes, "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Truth and beauty reside in the particulars of everyday life.  "Gray's Pier" and "Countryman" are emblematic of the wondrous way in which George Mackay Brown gives us his Orkney world exactly as it is, in its lovely (and sometimes harsh) particulars, while transforming it into the World in which we all live.  And die.

"A mystery abides.  We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person's attempt to make a meaning of life and time. Death is certain; it may be that the dust of good men and women lies more richly in the earth than that of the unjust;  between the silences they may be touched, however briefly, with the music of the spheres."

George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing: An Autobiography (John Murray 1997), page 181.


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from the sequence "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," Voyages.

Stanley Cursiter, "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Friday, December 25, 2015


Some people complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas.  Others complain that the season has been appropriated by the tackiest tendencies of "popular culture."  These complainers take themselves, and the World, far too seriously.

This is not surprising, for we live in the Age of Mewling.  A great number of people are aggrieved or offended by . . . well, nearly everything.  "Trigger warnings" and all that.  What a sad way to live.

The World is what it is.  On a daily basis, we have to pick and choose. Gratitude, not complaint, ought to be the basis for making our choices.

And there is always a larger context.

          Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Ben Nicholson, "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

Nothing about Christmas offends me.  In fact, most everything about the season delights me.  I'm happy to hear Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas" for the ten-thousandth time.  Likewise Perry Como and "Home for the Holidays" and Andy Williams and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

I love the fact that people string lights on their houses. What could be more wonderful than walking at night through a neighborhood that is full of colorful lights?  It makes me feel that all is right with the World -- like the sound of lawn mowers in the distance on a sunny Spring afternoon.  There is a great deal of truth and beauty in these simple human impulses.  Why not festively light up the night at the darkest time of the year?

                      Blind Noel

Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.

Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out.  In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.

R. S. Thomas, No Truce with the Furies (Bloodaxe Books 1995).

Harold Bush, "The Christmas Tree" (1933)

Yes, there is always a larger context.  "We are folded all in a green fable." There is absolutely nothing to complain about.

          Maeshowe:  Midwinter

Equinox to Hallowmas, darkness
     falls like the leaves.  The
     tree of the sun is stark.

On the loom of winter, shadows
     gather in a web; then the
     shuttle of St Lucy makes a
     pause; a dark weave
     fills the loom.

The blackness is solid as a
     stone that locks a tomb.
     No star shines there.

Then begins the true ceremony of
     the sun, when the one
     last fleeting solstice flame
     is caught up by a
     midnight candle.

Children sing under a street
     lamp, their voices like
     leaves of light.

George Mackay Brown, Following a Lark (John Murray 1996).

Maeshowe  (also known as "Maes Howe") is a chambered tomb located on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Islands.  It was constructed in 2800 B. C. (or thereabouts).  In the twelfth century, it was broken into by Vikings, who left behind runic inscriptions.

The entrance passage to the structure is aligned so that, at the time near and after the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine against the rear wall of the tomb.  Yuletide.

"A merry Christmas, friend!"

Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As a child growing up in this country, one of the first birds that one is likely to encounter is the robin.  Perhaps this is why I retain a particular fondness for them.  Call me sentimental, but I think of the successive generations of robins I have shared the World with as lifelong companions:  wordless, but not unspoken.

As we enter another winter together, I worry about them.  How will they fare in the cold and the wind and the gloom?  But there they are in the garden, flitting about in the trees and bushes, hopping along the paths, going about the business of being robins.

                 A Robin

Ghost-grey the fall of night,
        Ice-bound the lane,
Lone in the dying light
        Flits he again;
Lurking where shadows steal,
Perched in his coat of blood,
Man's homestead at his heel,
        Death-still the wood.

Odd restless child; it's dark;
        All wings are flown
But this one wizard's -- hark!
        Stone clapped on stone!
Changeling and solitary,
Secret and sharp and small,
Flits he from tree to tree,
        Calling on all.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (1933).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

De la Mare was writing in England, so his robin is a European robin, not an American robin -- a flycatcher, not a thrush.  But I like to think that the two share certain affinities:  a charming stolidity, staying power, and a cheerful stoicism.

And they both have their songs and notes.  Different songs and notes, of course, but perhaps the underlying message is the same.  "Synonyms for joy."

                 The Robin

Poor bird!  I do not envy thee;
Pleas'd in the gentle melody
     Of thy own song.
Let crabbed winter silence all
The winged choir; he never shall
     Chain up thy tongue:
          Poor innocent!
When I would please my self, I look on thee;
And guess some sparks of that felicity,
          That self-content.

When the bleak face of winter spreads
The earth, and violates the meads
     Of all their pride;
When sapless trees and flowers are fled,
Back to their causes, and lie dead
     To all beside:
          I see thee set,
Bidding defiance to the bitter air,
Upon a wither'd spray; by cold made bare,
          And drooping yet.

There, full in notes, to ravish all
My earth, I wonder what to call
     My dullness; when
I hear thee, pretty creature, bring
Thy better odes of praise, and sing,
     To puzzle men:
          Poor pious elf!
I am instructed by thy harmony,
To sing the time's uncertainty,
          Safe in my self.

Poor Redbreast, carol out thy lay,
And teach us mortals what to say.
     Here cease the choir
Of ayerie choristers; no more
Mingle your notes; but catch a store
     From her sweet lyre;
          You are but weak,
Mere summer chanters; you have neither wing
Nor voice, in winter.  Pretty Redbreast, sing,
          What I would speak.

George Daniel (1616-1657), "Ode XXIII," in Alexander Grosart (editor), The Poems of George Daniel, Volume II (1878) (spelling modernized).

"That self-content."  Call me an anthropomorphizer, a practitioner of the Pathetic Fallacy, but "self-content" is one of the traits that I admire in the robin.  "A robin with no Christian name ran through/The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew."  "All it knew"?  Yes, perhaps.  But:  "I am instructed by thy harmony . . . teach us mortals what to say."

Beryl Sinclair, "Winter, Regent's Park" (1941)

When I was young, we were taught to look for "the first robin of spring." But it has always seemed to me that quite a few of them stick around through the winter.  Their red-orange breasts are a welcome sight amidst the dark days, and add to the gaiety should snow arrive.  (Although I suppose that a snowfall is not necessarily a cause for celebration in the Robin-World!)  Thus, I think of robins not just as harbingers of spring, but as year-long reminders of the constancy and continuity of the World that surrounds us, a World that calls for our attention in even its humblest manifestations.


Clouded with snow
     The bleak winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
     Alone sings now.

     The rayless sun,
     Day's journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
     Unearthly white.

     Thick draws the dark,
     And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
     Floats the white moon.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (1912).

Frederick Mitchell, "Greig Close in Winter" (1955)

Poets rhapsodize about nightingales and skylarks.  There are those among us who search the woods for cardinals, orioles, bluebirds, and others of bright plumage.  But the commonplace, quotidian robin deserves its own paean.  Please note that I do not use "commonplace" or "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.  After all, both words apply to each and every one of us, although we may like to believe otherwise.

We need to often remind ourselves of this:


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 (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

As I have noted here on more than one occasion, we are all in this together. We each have our offices to perform.  Who among us is the humblest?  Who among us is of importance?  Who knows?  None of us is in a position to render judgment.

                    To Robin Redbreast

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, Hesperides (1648).

"Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,/Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush."  Not a bad way to spend eternity, communing with robins and thrushes.

John Aldridge, "Winter" (1947)