Saturday, July 19, 2014

"For Ever Gone"

I write this post with some reluctance.  This is not a current events blog.  If anything, it is intended to be a respite from current events.  Moreover, I am very conscious of not wanting to use another human being's fate for my own purposes.  I can only say in mitigation that I write this out of respect and in remembrance.

Just when we think we have "seen it all," we have not "seen it all."  And so this week we are suddenly reminded:  we will never see it all.

The question arises:  what is the appropriate human way to respond?  Of course, anyone with a ghost of decency reacts with horror and sadness to the latest outrage.  But, then, what?  I have no answers.

Peter Graham, "A Spate in the Highlands" (1866)

Recently, I have been revisiting the poetry of Edwin Muir.  In my previous post, I remarked upon his journey through the 20th century.  Last week, for the first time, I came across the following two poems by him.  The first was written during the Second World War.  The second was written in 1958, when it had become clear that the century had not yet exhausted its evil. Nothing has changed since.

Art and poetry can never be enough, of course.  I know that.  And I do not post the poems here in a vain attempt to "explain" things or to place things "in perspective."  That is impossible.  And insulting.  Which I think Muir knew.  He, like all of us, was grasping for something.

     Reading in Wartime

Boswell by my bed,
Tolstoy on my table:
Though the world has bled
For four and a half years,
And wives' and mothers' tears
Collected would be able
To water a little field
Untouched by anger and blood,
A penitential yield
Somewhere in the world;
Though in each latitude
Armies like forests fall,
The iniquitous and the good
Head over heels hurled,
And confusion over all:
Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous,
Tell me wherever I look
That not one soul can die
Of this or any clan
Who is not one of us
And has a personal tie
Perhaps to someone now
Searching an ancient book,
Folk-tale or country song
In many and many a tongue,
To find the original face,
The individual soul,
The eye, the lip, the brow
For ever gone from their place,
And gather an image whole.

Edwin Muir, The Voyage (1946).  The poem was first published on July 8, 1944, in the BBC magazine The Listener.

The first half of the poem, with its literary references, may initially prompt one to think that this will be yet another poem that attempts to resolve things by placing Life in the context of Art.  But a crucial turn occurs in exactly the middle (at line 19):  "Tell me more about life . . ."  From that point onward the poem moves steadily and movingly to another level entirely, culminating in the heartbreaking final lines, which bring us to where we ought to be.  It is not our own personal heartbreak -- the distance is unbridgeable.  But heartbreaking nonetheless.

Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)

                      Impersonal Calamity

Respectable men have witnessed terrible things,
And rich and poor things extraordinary,
These murder-haunted years.  Even so, even so,
Respectable men seem still respectable,
The ordinary no less ordinary,
For our inherited features cannot show
More than traditional grief and happiness
That rise from old and worn and simple springs.
How can an eye or brow
Disclose the gutted towns and the millions dead?
They have too slight an artistry.
Between us and the things that change us
A covenant long ago was set
And is prescriptive yet.
A single grief from man or God
Freely will let
Change in and bring a stern relief.
A son or daughter dead
Can bend the back or whiten the head,
Break and remould the heart,
Stiffen the face into a mask of grief.
It is an ancient art.
The impersonal calamities estrange us
From our own selves, send us abroad
In desolate thoughtlessness,
While far behind our hearts know what they know,
Yet cannot feel, nor ever express.

Edwin Muir, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1960).  The poem was first published in August of 1958 in The London Magazine.

"While far behind our hearts know what they know."  Is this true?  Or is it spurious consolation and/or self-protective rationalization?  But if Muir was writing about this sort of thing 50 years ago, where are we now?  The images arrive unbidden, on a daily basis, in detail.

I'm not certain if this is pertinent or not, but it comes to mind:

"Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own.  There remains in the world this infinite significance and to every event we owe a responsibility.  Also we must forgive ourselves.  You can construct a universe out of that, a heaven and a hell."

P. J. Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (Chatto & Windus 1966).

Perhaps, in the end, it simply comes to this:

                . . . we should be careful

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

Philip Larkin, "The Mower."

Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Way Leads On"

The notion of life as a journey is an ancient and beguiling one.  It has led to truisms such as "life is a journey, not a destination."  But, as I recently noted, truisms tend to be true.  It is all in how the thing is said, isn't it?

               The Way

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It's lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I'll make here my place,
(The road runs on),
Stand still and set my face,
(The road leaps on),
Stay here, for ever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh places I have passed!
That journey's done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.

Edwin Muir, The Labyrinth (1949).

Muir's life was something of an archetypal journey:  a movement from the seemingly timeless farms and sea of the Orkney Islands into the dispiriting heart of the 20th century -- first Glasgow, then lengthy stays in pre-Second World War Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and in post-War Eastern Europe.  It is no wonder that his poetry is marked by recurrent images of journeys and exiles:  literal and figurative, external and internal, with an underlying sense of the irremediable loss of something that cannot be quite articulated.

"Time wakens a longing more poignant than all the longings caused by the division of lovers in space, for there is no road back into its country.  Our bodies were not made for that journey; only the imagination can venture upon it; and the setting out, the road, and the arrival:  all is imagination."

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (The Hogarth Press 1954), page 224.

Thomas Hennell, "The Guest House, Cerne Abbas" (c. 1940)

From Christina Rossetti, here is another approach to the matter.  The poem has appeared here before, but it is worth a return visit.


Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
     Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
     From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
     A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
     You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
     Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
     They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
     Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
     Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

Thomas Hennell, "The Avenue, Bucklebury" (c. 1940)

Of course, our journey may be undertaken while staying in one place.

                              The Question

Will you, sometime, who have sought so long and seek
Still in the slowly darkening hunting ground,
Catch sight some ordinary month or week
Of that strange quarry you scarcely thought you sought --
Yourself, the gatherer gathered, the finder found,
The buyer, who would buy all, in bounty bought --
And perch in pride on the princely hand, at home,
And there, the long hunt over, rest and roam?

Edwin Muir, The Narrow Place (1943).

Muir's thoughts are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's well-known lines:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets (1943).

Thomas Hennell, "A View at Ridley" (c. 1940)

Finally, a poem by Edwin Muir's fellow Orcadian Robert Rendall (1898-1967) seems apt.

                      Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (1957).

Thomas Hennell, "The Beech Avenue, Lasham, Hampshire" (c. 1941)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Commonplace: Two Variations On A Theme

"Poetry and Commonplace" is the title of the Warton Lecture on English Poetry delivered by John Bailey in 1919.  I've grown fond of the lecture, no doubt because it accords with my own views on the nature of poetry.  To wit:

"One of the functions of poetry is just this, to discover the life that lies concealed in what are called commonplaces . . . to take a platitude and make of it an aphorism:  to rub off the accumulated rust of time and familiarity which prevents our seeing the fresh and vital truth underneath: to speak of a mother's love, or of the sadness of autumn, in such a way that we may feel them as we may suppose them to have been felt by those who first put such feelings into words, words which for them were as fresh and forcible as the feelings, but have now for us become stale and lifeless."

John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace (Warton Lecture on English Poetry X) (Oxford University Press 1919), page 3.  The lecture is also reprinted in Bailey's The Continuity of Letters (Oxford University Press 1923).

Some of you may say:  "Well, that's obvious."  My response is:  "I'm thick-headed and I need to be reminded of these things."  Others may say: "What about the avant-garde, and the overthrowing of long-established, stale traditions?  Isn't that the function of art?"  My response (yawning) is: "Nothing is more hackneyed, conformist, and unimaginative than the latest iteration of the avant-garde."  Finally, some may say:  "What about 'the poetry of witness,' poetry that addresses the burning issues of the day?"  My response (again, yawning) is (and you have heard this here before):  "Political poetry is an oxymoron."

Stanhope Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)

Bailey gives this as an example of a poem that transforms an ostensibly "trivial" moment into something else entirely.

                                Poor Susan

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
There's a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird.

'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her?  She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in Heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade;
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802).

Bailey writes of Wordsworth:

"The essential business of Wordsworth was to make a primrose by a river's brim [a reference to "Peter Bell"] more than that to every one who reads:  to bring out the strangeness of the common, the interestingness and newness and significance of the commonplace."

Poetry and Commonplace, page 10.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

Given his confident (is grandiose too strong a word?) view of himself, and his interest in big (and often eccentric) ideas, one would not expect W. B. Yeats to dwell upon the commonplace in his poetry.  But, if "Poor Susan" is about the commonplace, what are we to make of this lovely echo?

                    The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1893).

Please rest assured that I am not out to make sport of Yeats (although his personal quiddities are entertaining):  he is a great poet.  And I have previously written fondly of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."  I am merely suggesting (following Bailey's cue) that both Yeats and Wordsworth are at their best when they transform the commonplace, rather than travelling off, untethered, into the upper air (as they were both wont to do).

Stanhope Forbes, "A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach" (1885)

"Poetry has, it would rather seem, two functions with regard to truth:  its discovery and its re-discovery.  The great poet, that is, is sometimes creating and inventing, giving us new thoughts or pictures; and sometimes restating old ones in such a way that it appears as if we were hearing them for the first time.  His originality is of this double kind; an originality of substance and an originality of form.  The one originates something new, the other re-creates something old."

John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace, page 3.

I'm old-fashioned:  I like it when "truth" is mentioned in connection with poetry.

Stanhope Forbes
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, Near Hayle" (1938)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Waves And Robins

I am a slow reader.  When I hear someone say they finished reading a novel last week, I am impressed.  All I can say in response is that I read a few poems last week.  In saying this, I don't intend to sound precious or pedantic.  It's simply the ways things have worked out.

As I have suggested before, a poem -- like a painting -- needs time to develop.  In repose.  I have never been one to rush through art museums: looking at too many paintings makes my head spin.  Likewise with poetry: I don't see the point in reading wide swathes of poetry at a time.  One poem per sitting is my rule of thumb -- even for two-line poems.

John Brett
"Golden Prospects, St Catherine's Well, Land's End, Cornwall" (1881)

Reading poetry is a perambulation, not a race.  Thus, for instance, I continue to leisurely work my way through the poems of Walter de la Mare, discovering small gems.

     Never More, Sailor

Never more, Sailor,
Shalt thou be
Tossed on the wind-ridden,
Restless sea.
Its tides may labour;
All the world
Shake 'neath that weight
Of waters hurled:
But its whole shock
Can only stir
Thy dust to a quiet
Even quieter.
Thou mock'st at land
Who now art come
To such a small
And shallow home;
Yet bore the sea
Full many a care
For bones that once
A sailor's were.
And though the grave's
Deep soundlessness
Thy once sea-deafened
Ear distress,
No robin ever
On the deep
Hopped with his song
To haunt thy sleep.

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

Of course, countless poems have been written about seafarers coming to rest at last on land, there to spend eternity.  "Home is the sailor, home from sea . . ."  Et cetera.

Ah, yes, but what about this?

No robin ever
On the deep
Hopped with his song
To haunt thy sleep.

I could not read those four lines and then move on straightaway to another poem.  I needed a day or so to let them rest, and quietly revolve, in my mind. I fell to sleep remembering them.  I am certainly not recommending this approach for everyone.  Others are no doubt more industrious, and out for bigger game.  I prefer daydreaming as I wander down by-ways.

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

If we let poems take their time, detours and diversions may offer themselves up.  De la Mare's sailor home from the sea got me to thinking of the numerous wonderful poems in The Greek Anthology about the sea-side graves of mariners.  For instance:

Though smiling calms should smooth the glassy seas,
Or the light ruffling of the western breeze
Should skim their surface, with no venturous prow
Will I the dreary waste of waters plough.
By sad experience warn'd I tempt no more
The swelling billows and the tempest's roar.

Leonidas (translated by William Shepherd), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849), page 301.


Hail, shipwreck'd corse!  accuse not from the grave,
     The ocean, but the winds, that wrought thy doom:
They wreck'd thee; while the gentle salt-sea wave
     Bore thee to land, to thy parental tomb.

Julianus (translated by Henry Wellesley), Ibid, page 78.


This is a sailor's, that a peasant's tomb:
'Neath sea and land there lurks one common doom.

Plato (translated by Richard Coxe), Ibid, page 234.

John Brett, "The Land's End, Cornwall" (1880)

And what of that lovely robin, haunting (peacefully) the sleep of the sailor? I was reminded of a wonderful poem by Robert Herrick that appeared here in May.

                 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, Hesperides (1648).

And so a simple poem led to a nice stroll, a stroll during which our frenetic modern world was entirely absent.  Have no fear!  It will still be there when you return.

John Brett, "Forest Cove, Cardigan Bay" (1883)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Now Is The All-Sufficing All Wherein To Love The Lovely Well"

Walter de la Mare continued to use (without irony) "thou" and "thee" and "thy" in his poems into the middle of the 20th century.  I think (without irony) that this is wonderful:  it shows that he was true to his Muse (another bordering-on-the-obsolete word that de la Mare was wont to use).

But please do not get the idea that de la Mare was living in an antiquarian dreamworld.  He was well-acquainted with the realities of the past century. To cite one instance:  he lost his friend Edward Thomas in the First World War.  Of the many elegies written for Thomas, de la Mare's "To E. T.: 1917" (which has appeared here previously) is (for me at least) the most moving   -- and the one which best captures the essence of Thomas.

De la Mare's poetry does not receive the attention it deserves, which is unfortunate.  His final volume of poems appeared in 1953, when he was in his eightieth year.  And he was still writing fine poems.


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

"Whate'er" is also a word that one would not expect to come across in mid-20th century English or American poetry.  A great loss, I would say.

Hilda Carline (1889-1950), "Luxembourg Gardens, Paris"

If a poet is writing well in their seventies or eighties, we may be able to learn a thing or two from them about life.


Only the Blessed of Lethe's dews
     May stoop to drink.  And yet,
Were their Elysium mine to lose,
Could I -- without repining -- choose
     Life's sorrows to forget?


A wise question, that.

I am reminded of a poem from The Greek Anthology that I posted here earlier this year.

This stone, beloved Sabinus, on thy grave
     Memorial small of our great love shall be.
I still shall seek thee lost; from Lethe's wave
     Oh! drink not thou forgetfulness -- of me.

Anonymous (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849), page 107.

Stanislawa De Karlowska, "The Eyot, Richmond" (1941)

This is the last poem in de la Mare's final volume.

                       The Owl

Apart, thank Heaven, from all to do
To keep alive the long day through;
To imagine; think; watch; listen to;
There still remains -- the heart to bless,
Exquisite pregnant Idleness.

Why, we might let all else go by
To seek its Essence till we die . . .

Hark, now! that Owl, a-snoring in his tree,
Till it grow dark enough for him to see.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

The meditation on "Idleness" is marvelous.  But then comes the last couplet, which carries the poem off into another realm entirely.  The lines embody the underlying current of mystery (in an unworldly, supernatural sense) that has often been commented upon in de la Mare's work.  This is a quality that de la Mare shares with Thomas Hardy, who he knew and admired.

"Till it grow dark enough for him to see":  what a lovely way to close a poetic career!

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (1959)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Life Explained, Part Thirty-Two: "A Single Grain Of Rice Falling -- Into The Great Barn"

Human beings tend to believe that the times in which they live are unique or unprecedented.  This belief is particularly prevalent among the social engineers (politicians, scientists, assorted busybodies, and their ilk) who put their faith in Progress.  Truisms come in handy at this point.  There is nothing new under the sun.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

The technological baubles of each successive "Modern Age" mean nothing. The human emotions that swirl within our hearts and minds and souls have not altered a whit in centuries.  When I wander through, say, The Greek Anthology or Robert Herrick's Hesperides I come across local peculiarities that mark out the age in which the poems were written.  But the clearest impression I take away is this:  They are the same as us.

Frederick William Hayes, "Cwm Silyn" (c. 1880)

Thus, twelve centuries ago, a Chinese poet spoke for us all, the living and the dead.  Nothing has changed.

            Climbing the Ling-Ying Terrace and Looking North

Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of Man's Domain;
Gazing into distance I begin to know the vanity of the Carnal World.
I turn my head and hurry home -- back to the Court and Market,
A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn.

Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Frederick William Hayes, "A Waterfall" (c. 1880)

"A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn."  I cannot claim to have lived in a manner that reflects the wisdom implicit in that line.  I doubt that I ever will.  But it is something to aspire to.  In the meantime, I am happy to jettison (to the best of my limited ability) any notions of uniqueness or novelty in myself or in my times and embrace truisms (which are, after all, true).

                         The Truisms

His father gave him a box of truisms
Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
Or that other his father skulked inside.

Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
He could not remember seeing before.

And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
And something told him the way to behave.
He raised his hand and blessed his home;
The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
And a tall tree sprouted from his father's grave.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (Faber and Faber 1961).  MacNeice's father was a cleric who eventually became a bishop in the Church of Ireland.  He died in 1942, when MacNeice was 34.

MacNeice's poetry generally has a sardonic streak running through it.  But there are times when it gives way, at least in part, and for a moment only.

Frederick William Hayes, "Rock and Mountains" (c. 1880)

                 Realizing the Futility of Life

Ever since the time when I was a lusty boy
Down till now when I am ill and old,
The things I have cared for have been different at different times,
But my being busy, that has never changed.
Then on the shore -- building sand-pagodas.
Now, at Court, covered with tinkling jade.
This and that -- equally childish games,
Things whose substance passes in a moment of time!
While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand;
When there is no Attachment, Doctrine is sound.
Even should one zealously strive to learn the Way,
That very striving will make one's error more.

Po Chu-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

The final four lines have a distinct Taoist and Buddhist component, particularly the concepts of non-attachment and "the Way."  However, it should be noted that these sorts of truths are not limited to Taoism or Buddhism.

Sand-pagodas or sand-castles:  it is all the same.

Frederick William Hayes, "Rocks in the Colwyn" (c. 1881)

Saturday, June 28, 2014


When this week began, I did not intend to devote any time to pondering the fate of my mortal remains and of my soul.  Then, mid-week, I happened upon this:

                         On Himself

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

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

Poetry is funny that way:  you never know where you are headed next.

As it turns out, Herrick derived his thought from two lines of one of Horace's Odes:  "I shall not all die, and a large part of me will escape the Goddess of Death." Horace, Odes, Book III, Ode XXX.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 675.  Here is a verse translation:

I shall not wholly die:  large residue
Shall 'scape the queen of funerals.

Horace (translated by John Conington), in The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (Fifth Edition 1872).

Kenneth Rowntree, "Old Toll Bar House, Ashopton" (1940)

But this was not the end of the journey.  On the opposite page, I noticed this:

                  Great Spirits Supervive

Our mortal parts may wrapt in seare-cloths lie:
Great Spirits never with their bodies die.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648) (italics in original).

"Supervive" means "survive."  OED.  "Seare-cloths" is a variant spelling of "cerecloth," which is defined as:  "cloth smeared or impregnated with wax or some glutinous matter:  (1) used for wrapping a dead body in; a waxed winding-sheet or a winding-sheet in general."  Ibid.

Is this whistling past the graveyard?  I have no theological agenda, nor do I have a sectarian bone to pick.  However, something has always told me that we all possess a soul (for lack of a better word -- and it is, actually, a fine word), a soul whose fate is beyond our ken.

As to the "Great Spirit" part:  well, none of us are in a position to lay claim to that epithet, are we?  Something unknown, inscrutable, and silent makes that determination.  I do know this:  if you come to believe that you are a "Great Spirit," then you most certainly are not.

Kenneth Rowntree, "The Livermore Tombs, Barnston, Essex" (1940)

Something about "Great Spirits never with their bodies die" rang a bell. When Herrick italicizes a phrase it signals that he has obtained it from another source, usually classical or Biblical.  Cain and Connolly, in their thorough annotations to Hesperides, do not, however, identify a source for this phrase.

But I have a thought.  As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers will recall, I spent some time earlier this year wandering through The Greek Anthology.  I do not have the scholarly credentials to claim the following epigram as the source for Herrick's phrase, but it does provide an interesting parallel:

In sacred sleep here virtuous Saon lies;
'Tis ever wrong to say a good man dies.

Callimachus (translated by William Dodd), in The Hymns of Callimachus, Translated from the Greek into English Verse, with Explanatory Notes (1755).

An alternative translation:

Here Saon, wrapp'd in holy slumber, lies:
Thou canst not say, the just and virtuous dies.

Callimachus (translated by John Merivale), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

Thus ends this week's journey.

Kenneth Rowntree, "Bridge to Cox's Farm, Ashopton" (1940)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Like Music At Night, Distant, Fading Away"

Recently, I have been trying to remember my grandfather's voice.  He passed away more than twenty years ago, but I can still "hear" him -- although I know the sound is all in my head.

His parents immigrated to America from Sweden near the turn of the twentieth century.  My grandfather and his four brothers -- each of them blue-eyed, tall, reticent, and skillful at fixing things -- spoke with a sort of Scandinavian lilt and cadence, even though they were born here.  Swedish must still have been spoken on the farm when they were growing up.

I have a photograph of me, at the age of 4 or 5, watching my grandfather as he stood at a wood table cleaning a fish he had caught in a northern Minnesota lake.  I remember fishing with him.  If I caught a small sunfish he would say:  "That's a keeper."

Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Landscape with Ludlow Castle" (1952)


Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.

And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life's first poetry --
like music at night, distant, fading away.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems: Revised Edition (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).  In the original version of their translation, Keeley and Sherrard translated the final line as follows:  "like distant music fading away at night."  C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975).  The line is so wonderful, it is difficult to choose, isn't it?

As I have suggested before, the versions of Keeley and Sherrard are the best place to start when seeking out translations of Cavafy's poems.  However, it is instructive to consider other translations as well:  although the details differ, the underlying emotional core of the poem usually remains intact.

Clarence MacKenzie (1889-1948), "Ludlow Castle, Early Morning"


Ideal voices and dearly loved
Of those who have died, or of those who are
To us lost like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak;
Sometimes in thought the brain hears them.

And with their sound return for a moment
Sounds from the first poetry of our life --
Like music, at night, far off, that fades away.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Robert Liddell), in Robert Liddell, Cavafy: A Biography (Duckworth 1974).

The two versions are fairly close, aren't they?  The entire poem is lovely, but the final two lines are hard to beat.  It is interesting to see how similar the two versions are:  "our life's first poetry" versus "the first poetry of our life"; "like music at night, distant, fading away" versus "like music, at night, far off, that fades away."  I lean towards Keeley and Sherrard.

C. H. H. Burleigh (1869-1956), "Ludlow"

Derek Mahon has referred to his translations (mostly from French, but from a number of other languages as well) as "adaptations."  Thus, in the Foreword to his most recent collection of translations, he writes:  "These aren't translations, in the strict sense, but versions of their originals devised, as often as not, from cribs of one kind or another. . . . My own versions, looking to recreate the spirit and employing many extraneous devices, belong in another category, that of poems adapted from their originals."  Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove: Translations (The Gallery Press 2013) (italics in the original).

For those adept at Greek, this sort of approach might set the teeth on edge. But, because Mahon is such a gifted poet, I am more than willing to give him some slack.  (Easy for me to say, given my ignorance of Greek!)  Here is his version of Cavafy's poem.


Definitive voices of the loved dead
or the loved lost, as good as dead,
speak to us in our dreams
or at odd moments.

Listening, we hear again,
like music at night,
the original poetry of our lives.


Keeley, Sherrard, and Liddell replicate the eight-line, three-stanza form of the original.  Mahon shortens the poem.  He certainly preserves what I called above the "emotional core" of the poem.  I particularly like "the loved lost, as good as dead."  But I confess that I miss "like music at night, distant, fading away." I think that it is the Ernest Dowson in me that gets hooked by that line.

David Birch, "Lord of the Marches" (1958)