Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Unless, While With Admiring Eye We Gaze, We Also Learn To Love"

As I noted in my previous post, William Wordsworth is prone to high-flown rhetoric and prolixity.  But I am willing to cut him some slack.  Why? Because I have always felt that his poetry is animated by a depth of passion one seldom encounters.  That passion is the product of a love of the World, and of a love for the miraculous fact of our existence in the World.

Not surprisingly, "love" (meant in this broader sense) is a word that one comes across again and again in Wordsworth's poetry.  It is a word that goes to the very heart of what Wordsworth thought of as the vocation of "the Poet":

"He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love."

William Wordsworth, Preface to 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems, page  xxxvii.  The phrase "relationship and love" is curious (and lovely), isn't it?  I've never quite figured it out.  But that does not stop me from liking it.

Earlier in the Preface, he speaks of "the Poet's art" as being "a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love."  Ibid, page xxxiii.

Wordsworth published the Preface at the age of 32.  Did his passion wane in his later years?  Well, passion does wane, doesn't it?  Yet he wrote this at the age of 72:

Glad sight wherever new with old
Is joined through some dear homeborn tie;
The life of all that we behold
Depends upon that mystery.
Vain is the glory of the sky,
The beauty vain of field and grove,
Unless, while with admiring eye
We gaze, we also learn to love.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1845).

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Woolverton and Peart Woods" (1970)

Wordsworth's love is not an abstract, free-floating concept.  Through his poetry, it is intimately connected with, and is the product of, the daily miracle of the World around us.  This love, if we pay sufficient attention (a daunting task!), is one we all carry within us.

                       A Night-Piece

                                The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears,
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground
With any shadow -- plant, or tower, or tree.
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
To earth.  He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.
There in a black-blue vault she sails along
Followed by multitudes of stars, that small,
And bright, and sharp along the gloomy vault
Drive as she drives.  How fast they wheel away!
Yet vanish not!  The wind is in the trees;
But they are silent.  Still they roll along
Immeasurably distant, and the vault
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its interminable depth.
At length the vision closes, and the mind
Not undisturbed by the deep joy it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

William Wordsworth, 1798 manuscript, in Beth Darlington, "Two Early Texts: A Night-Piece and The Discharged Soldier," in Jonathan Wordsworth (editor), Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies in Memory of John Alban Finch (Cornell University Press 1970), page 431.

A side-note: as I have noted previously in connection with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's line "The one red leaf, the last of its clan," the journal entries of Wordsworth's sister Dorothy provided, on more than one occasion, the source for poems written by Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Such is the case with "A Night-Piece."  On January 25, 1798, she wrote:

"The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows.  At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault. She sailed  along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (Oxford University Press 2002), page 142.

Dane Maw, "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Like the other Romantic poets, Wordsworth produced his fair share of paeans to the moon and the stars, and to the other wondrous immensities of the Universe.  But we mustn't forget that his love is catholic.  The minute particulars (to borrow one of William Blake's favorite phrases) are worthy of -- deserve -- our attention.

                       To a Child
            Written in Her Album

Small service is true service while it lasts:
Of humblest Friends, bright Creature! scorn not one:
The Daisy, by the shadow that it casts,
Protects the lingering dew-drop from the Sun.

William Wordsworth, Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems (1835).

Dane Maw, "Langdale Fells, Westmorland"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How To Live, Part Twenty-Four: "Quiet Sympathies With Things That Hold An Inarticulate Language"

I recently came across the following remarkable lines by William Wordsworth:

                                          Not useless do I deem
These quiet sympathies with things that hold
An inarticulate language; for the man
Once taught to love such objects as excite
No morbid passions, no disquietude,
No vengeance, and no hatred needs must feel
The joy of that pure principle of love
So deeply that, unsatisfied with aught
Less pure and exquisite, he cannot choose
But seek for objects of a kindred love
In fellow-natures and a kindred joy.
Accordingly he by degrees perceives
His feelings of aversion softened down,
A holy tenderness pervade his frame,
His sanity of reason not impaired,
Say rather all his thoughts now flowing clear,
From a clear fountain flowing, he looks round,
He seeks for good and finds the good he seeks
Till execration and contempt are things
He only knows by name and if he hears
From other mouths the language which they speak
He is compassionate and has no thought
No feeling which can overcome his love.

William Wordsworth, excerpt from manuscript of "The Ruined Cottage," in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 400-401.  The lines were later incorporated, with revisions, into Book IV ("Despondency Corrected") of The Excursion (1814).

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

Over the years, I have made only desultory, occasional forays into Wordsworth's lengthy philosophical/narrative poems (e.g., The Prelude, The Excursion, The Recluse).  I confess that their prolixity and their often high-flown rhetoric have been a barrier.  However, a passage such as this makes me feel that I have been remiss, and inexcusably lazy.  Yes, there is some prolixity and rhetoric in these lines, but they are outweighed by the simple truth of what Wordsworth says -- and the beautiful way in which he says it.

Wordsworth wrote this passage at a time when his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge was at its strongest.  Thus, it is not surprising that, in a letter to his brother written in March or April of 1798, Coleridge quotes the first 18 lines of the passage (indicating that Wordsworth had shared the manuscript with him).  Immediately prior to quoting the lines, Coleridge writes:

"I love fields and woods and mountains with almost a visionary fondness. And because I have found benevolence and quietness growing within me as that fondness has increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others, and to destroy the bad passions not by combating them but by keeping them in inaction."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letter to George Coleridge, in Ernest Hartley Coleridge (editor), Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume I (1895), pages 243-244.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

For some reason, two poems by R. S. Thomas came to mind as I was mulling over Wordsworth's lines.  I do not consider them to be reiterations of what Wordsworth has to say.  Rather, I think of them as being instances of how Wordsworth's thoughts may play out in our lives.


Not conscious
         that you have been seeking
         you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
                 dust free
         with no road out
but the one you came in by.

                 A bird chimes
         from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
         you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
         as you are, a traveller
                 with the moon's halo
         above him, who has arrived
         after long journeying where he
                 began, catching this
         one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (1983).

For me, the most profound, and the loveliest, statement in Wordsworth's passage is this:  "Not useless do I deem/These quiet sympathies with things that hold/An inarticulate language."  I think this statement sets forth a principle (to use Wordsworth's word) that provides the link between Thomas's poems and Wordsworth's meditation.  That principle, as expressed by both Wordsworth and Thomas, requires openness, receptiveness, repose, and contemplation.  Not easy qualities to attain.  A lifetime in the making, and then, if one is lucky, one may finally touch them.  In the meantime, we can only strive.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

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

Thomas's phrase "the eternity that awaits you" prompts me to think of a statement by Ludwig Wittgenstein that I have posted here on more than one occasion: "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Proposition 6.4311 (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)

Everything is right there in front of us, if only we pay attention, if only we look.

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

Shoha (1727-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 217.

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

Friday, December 12, 2014


Although they traffic in words, poets are not averse to offering paeans to silence.  Which, come to think of it, raises a question:  are the words of poets silent or spoken?  In the interest of full disclosure (and recognizing the spoken or sung origins of ancient poetry), I confess that I have no interest in hearing poets recite their poems.

As is so often the case, Philip Larkin hits the nail on the head:

"Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much -- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end.  Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you're dragged along at the speaker's own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing 'there' and 'their' and things like that.  And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse.  For that matter, so may the audience. . . . When you write a poem, you put everything into it that's needed: the reader should 'hear' it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him.  And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax.  I don't think it stands up on the page."

Philip Larkin, "An Interview with Paris Review" (1982), in Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1982), page 61 (italics in original).

It is not unlikely that Larkin, as he was wont to do, is engaging in a bit of interviewer-baiting here, as well as trying to perpetuate the curmudgeonly caricature that he fashioned for the media.  But he is exactly right.  Things have steadily worsened in the ensuing 30 years:  in addition to universities offering academic degrees in, of all things, the writing of poetry, we have a never-ending circuit of poetry readings in which poets become known for their entertainment value.  The dramatic posturing is horrendous and risible at the same time.  And wholly typical of our age.

Now that I have finished my own curmudgeonly rant, let's return to poets and silence.

David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "En Provence" (1922)

There are times when we each of us longs for "a little peace and quiet." Imagine a place without the background hum of modern civilization in your ears.  I have experienced such a silence a few times:  for instance, on an atoll in the Cook Islands, in the high desert of eastern Utah, up in the Sierra Nevada of California in the early 1970s, and on the Isle of Skye.  It takes some getting used to.

Poets are sometimes inclined to take this thought to its natural conclusion. But perhaps the ultimate silence of our "implacable fate" is not such a bad thing after all.

    Beata Solitudo

What land of Silence,
     Where pale stars shine
On apple-blossom
     And dew-drenched vine,
     Is yours and mine?

The silent valley
     That we will find,
Where all the voices
     Of humankind
     Are left behind.

There all forgetting,
     Forgotten quite,
We will repose us,
     With our delight
     Hid out of sight.

The world forsaken,
     And out of mind
Honour and labour,
     We shall not find
     The stars unkind.

And men shall travail,
     And laugh and weep;
But we have vistas
     Of gods asleep,
     With dreams as deep.

A land of Silence,
     Where pale stars shine
On apple-blossoms
     And dew-drenched vine,
     Be yours and mine!

Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896).  "Beata solitudo" may be translated as "blessed solitude."

An aside:  the phrases "laugh and weep" (line 22) and "with dreams as deep" (line 25) remind me that all of Ernest Dowson's poems seem to be a variation on the poem that captures the essence of his poetry (and of most of the poetry of the 1890s as well).  I say this with a genuine sense of affection, and not as a criticism.  I am very fond of Dowson's poetry, and there are times when I am in perfect sympathy with his view of the world. Here is the poem of which I speak (it has appeared here before, but it is always worth revisiting):

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
     Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
     We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
     Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
     Within a dream.

Ernest Downson, Ibid.  "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" is a line from one of Horace's Odes (I.iv), and may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in long-term hope."

David Young Cameron, "The Hill of the Winds" (c. 1913)

Ernest Dowson and Christina Rossetti could not be more different. Dowson, like many poets of the 1890s, flirted with Catholicism while living a dissolute life.  Catholicism held some sort of aesthetic attraction for these poets.  I sense that it added a measure of self-created drama to their lives, providing a contrast to the hedonistic, love-sick melancholy in which they found themselves.  Rossetti, in contrast, was a devout Christian.  She was a member of the Church of England, with ties to the Oxford Movement of the Victorian era.  A great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse, and she wrote a number of devotional prose works.

Yet, when I read the following poem by Rossetti, I cannot help but think that she and Dowson do not sound so far apart.  Perhaps I am stretching the point, but if the poems were unknown to me, and if I was not told who had written them, it would not seem strange to me that Dowson wrote "Golden Silences" and that Rossetti wrote "Beata Solitudo."

               Golden Silences

There is silence that saith, "Ah me!"
     There is silence that nothing saith;
          One the silence of life forlorn,
     One the silence of death;
One is, and the other shall be.

One we know and have known for long,
     One we know not, but we shall know,
          All we who have ever been born;
     Even so, be it so, --
There is silence, despite a song.

Sowing day is a silent day,
     Resting night is a silent night;
          But whoso reaps the ripened corn
     Shall shout in his delight,
While silences vanish away.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).

David Young Cameron
"The Norman Arch" (c. 1918)

Rossetti and Dowson come from the ethereal side of silence.  On the other hand, and as one might expect, Thomas Hardy arrives at silence through the minute particulars of the World.


There is the silence of a copse or croft
            When the wind sinks dumb,
            And of a belfry-loft
When the tenor after tolling stops its hum.

And there's the silence of a lonely pond
            Where a man was drowned,
            Nor nigh nor yond
A newt, frog, toad, to make the merest sound.

But the rapt silence of an empty house
            Where oneself was born,
            Dwelt, held carouse
With friends, is of all silences most forlorn!

Past are remembered songs and music-strains
            Once audible there:
            Roof, rafters, panes
Look absent-thoughted, tranced, or locked in prayer.

It seems no power on earth can waken it
            Or rouse its rooms,
            Or its past permit
The present to stir a torpor like a tomb's.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

A side-note:  Hardy often recalled, and mused upon, what appears to have been a happy childhood.   Thus, "Silences" is reminiscent of an earlier poem of his which was also prompted by a visit to his old family home.

       The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).

David Young Cameron, "A Little Town in Provence" (1922)

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Lost World, Part Four: Antiquity

Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 - c. 468 B. C.) is best known as the author of the inscription that appeared on the monument to the Spartans that was erected after the battle of Thermopylae.  The inscription was recorded by Herodotus:

Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.

George Rawlinson (translator), The History of Herodotus, Volume IV (1860), Book VII, Section 228, page 180.  The inscription has traditionally been ascribed to Simonides, although there has been scholarly debate on this point.

I am fond of this translation:

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Simonides (translated by William Lisle Bowles), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

This sort of restraint -- a restraint charged with unspoken emotion -- is largely absent from the modern world.  I do not wish to romanticize the ancient world:  it was a harsh and brutal place.  But there is a seemliness and a sense of proportion at work that are mostly missing in our own time.

Edward William Cooke
"Scheveningen Pincks Off the Coast of Yarmouth" (1864)

In the late 1890s, a marble block with a two-line inscription carved into it was discovered on the Greek island of Salamis, which gave its name to the culminating naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars.  The Corinthians who died in the battle were buried on Salamis.  Here is the inscription, which has been attributed to Simonides:

O stranger, once we dwelt in Corinth blest with fountains;
Now the isle of Ajax holds our bones.

Simonides, quoted in Dio Chrysostom, The Thirty-Seventh, or Corinthian, Discourse, in H. Lamar Crosby (translator), Dio Chrysostom, Volume IV (Harvard University Press 1946).

Here is an alternative, sparer, translation.

Friend, we once were alive in the harbor city of Korinth.
Now the island city of Salamis is our grave.

Richmond Lattimore, Greek Lyrics (University of Chicago Press 1955).

Edward William Cooke
"A Dutch Galliot Aground on a Sandbank on the Biesbosch" (1878)

In Book I of De Divinatione, Cicero tells the following story of Simonides:

"[Simonides] once saw the dead body of some unknown man lying exposed and buried it.  Later, when he had it in mind to go on board a ship, he was warned in a vision by the person to whom he had given burial not to do so and that if he did he would perish in a shipwreck.  Therefore he turned back and all the others who sailed were lost."

Cicero, in William Armistead Falconer (translator), Cicero: De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione (Harvard University Press 1923).

William Wordsworth, who admired the poetry of Simonides, wrote the following untitled sonnet about the incident related by Cicero.

I find it written of Simonides
That travelling in strange countries once he found
A corpse that lay expos'd upon the ground,
For which, with pains, he caused due obsequies
To be performed, and paid all holy fees.
Soon after, this man's Ghost unto him came
And told him not to sail as was his aim,
On board a ship then ready for the seas.
Simonides, admonished by the ghost,
Remained behind; the ship the following day
Set sail, was wrecked, and all on board were lost.
Thus was the tenderest Poet that could be,
Who sang in ancient Greece his moving lay,
Saved out of many by his piety.

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Three (Oxford University Press 1954).  The poem was first published on October 10, 1803, in The Morning Post.

Edward William Cooke
"Venetian Fishing Craft Caught in a 'Borasca'" (1873)

As I have noted on a previous occasion, the fate of unfortunate mariners was a common subject of the Greek poetry of antiquity.  The following lovely poem by Callimachus has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting at this time due to its resemblance to the story of Simonides and the abandoned corpse.

Stranger, whoe'er thou art, found stranded here,
O'er thee Leontichus heaped up this grave,
Whilst at his own hard lot he dropped a tear:
He too, a restless sea-bird, roams the wave.

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

Given the role of the sea in the life of the Greeks, it is not surprising that Simonides wrote a number of poems about the misfortunes of seafarers. This is an inscription for a cenotaph.

O cloud-capt Geraneia, rock unblest!
Would thou hadst reared far hence thy haughty crest,
By Tanais wild, or wastes where Ister flows;
Nor looked on Sciron from thy silent snows!
A cold, cold corpse he lies beneath the wave,
This tomb speaks, tenantless, his ocean grave.

Simonides (translated by Robert Bland), in J. H. Merivale (editor), Collections from The Greek Anthology (1833).  Mount Geraneia is located on the Isthmus of Corinth.  Tanais was a Greek colony located on the far northeastern corner of the Sea of Azov, on the banks of the River Don.  Ister was the Greek name for the Danube.  Sciron (also spelled "Sceiron") probably refers to the Sceironian Rocks, a rugged region on the Isthmus of Corinth.

Here is an epitaph.

A land not thine hath shed its dust o'er thee,
A fated wanderer o'er the Pontic sea:
No joys for thee of sweet regretted home;
To sea-girt Chios thou didst never come.

Simonides (translated by Robert Bland), Ibid.  The Pontic Sea was the Greek name for the Black Sea.  Chios is an island in the Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey.

Edward William Cooke, "Off the Port of Havre" (1840)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Finger Pointing To The Moon

Each of us knows that the popular culture which surrounds us is vacuous and vacant.  But our age is not unique.  It has ever been thus.  The perpetrators have new identities; the crimes are the same.

"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.  To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves."

William Wordsworth, Preface to the 1802 Edition of Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems.

Sound familiar?

The dichotomy between the real and the contrived has always been with us. And it has always been a matter of choice.

                    The Sea and the Skylark

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
     Trench -- right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
     With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
     His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeined score
     In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none's to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
     How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure!  We, life's pride and cared-for crown,

     Have lost that cheer and charm of earth's past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
     To man's last dust, drain fast towards man's first slime.

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

Cecil Gordon Lawson, "The Hop-Gardens of England" (1874)

"The Sea and the Skylark" brings to mind the following poem.  It is a poem that, because it is so familiar, is sometimes difficult to see afresh.  Some may feel that it simply states a truism (a truism that is, moreover, fairly malleable, depending upon one's agenda).  But, as I am wont to say: "Truisms are true."  And all the better if they come wrapped in beauty.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.  Great God!  I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807).  In 1827, Wordsworth changed "coming" to "rising" in line 13.

Alexander Fraser, "Broughty Castle" (c. 1860)

As one might expect from the content of this blog, I'm inclined to think that poetry may be of some assistance to us if we find ourselves to be "out of tune."  But, have no fear!  I am not about to launch into a sententious apostrophe upon "the transformative power of poetry" or "poetry and the examined life."  I will simply offer a couple of clues.

In the following passages, R. H. Blyth is speaking of haiku in particular. However, his observations are applicable to poetry in general.

"The real nature of each thing, and more so, of all things, is a poetical one. . . . Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew; it shows us that we are poets in so far as we live at all."

"All things around us are asking for our apprehension, working for our enlightenment.  But our thoughts are of folly.  What is worse, every day, and many times in the day, we are enlightened, we are Buddha, a poet, -- but do not know it, and remain an ordinary man.  For our sake haiku isolate, as far as it is possible, significance from the mere brute fact or circumstance.  It is a single finger pointing to the moon."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page x; Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page i.

The final sentence of the second passage comes from a well-known Buddhist saying which emphasizes that the Buddha's teachings (and, by extension, any words) are merely a finger pointing at the moon; they are not the moon.

James McLachlan Nairn, "Kildonan" (1886)

Here is one view as to where poetry stands in the Modern Age.


As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.  Was there oil
For the machine?  It was
The vinegar in the poets' cup.

The tins marched to the music
Of the conveyor belt.  A billion
Mouths opened.  Production,
Production, the wheels

Whistled.  Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.

R. S. Thomas, H'm (1972).

In his poetry, Thomas was preoccupied (among other things) with modern mechanization and the conflicting claims of God and Science.   But I think poetry has always been in the position he describes, regardless of the immediate particulars of the parlous or vacant times in which it finds itself. "Deciduous language."  Yes, "deciduous language" is what is required and necessary.  A finger pointing to the moon.

Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Albury Heath, Surrey"

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Irony rules the modern world, together with its noisome colleagues: cynicism, sarcasm, solipsism, and narcissism.  Of course, I recognize that irony has always been a part of human nature.  And I confess at the outset of this harangue that I am no saint.  I am ironic (and cynical, sarcastic, solipsistic, and narcissistic) on a daily basis.  But I like to think I am in recovery.

The defining feature of irony is this:  it divorces the ironist from the World, and from feeling.  Ironists are interested in appearing unillusioned, knowing, sophisticated, and (most importantly) smarter than the rest of us. But human emotion frightens and confuses them.  Here is an example from the world of "Modernist" literature:  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound are as cold as ice.  (I say this as one who retains a fondness for some of the poetry of Eliot and Pound.  But I admit that I have no time for Joyce and his empty parlor games with words.)

When I read the poetry of, say, T'ao Ch'ien, Basho, or John Clare I feel that I am reading the words of real human beings who inhabit a World that is real.  They are not always irony free.  Such is human nature.  But they never take the final soulless step of the modern ironist:  standing in judgment of everyone and everything, leaving the World behind.

David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "Western Isles"

All of this brings me back (perhaps unaccountably) to the topic of my previous post:  idleness.  Ironists can never be idle in a self-reflective, detached, meditative sense.  They require an audience.  That audience usually consists of fellow ironists.  Irony is a never-ending world of performance.

Imagine an ironist daydreaming.  Imagine an ironist in reverie.

Imagine an ironist taking the following poem at face value.

                    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).

Now, I acknowledge that the idea of W. B. Yeats -- he of the fur coats and Renaissance capes -- tending his nine bean-rows beside his hand-built clay-and-wattle cabin is to some extent risible.  Further, as I have noted in the past, I have my doubts about his eccentric philosophical forays and his haughtiness.  But I have no doubt that he wrote the poem without irony.  I am willing to take the poem on its own beautiful terms.

David Young Cameron, "Affric"

For ironists, sentimentality and nostalgia are epithets.  Hence, William Wordsworth mostly gives them fits.  "My heart leaps up when I behold/A Rainbow in the sky."  "I wandered lonely as a Cloud."  "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

And certainly this sort of thing is beyond the pale for modern ironists.

                    The Reverie of 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, Poems (1815).

Ironists are incapable of understanding, or accepting, a poem such as this on its own terms.  It belongs to a way of thinking and a way of living that they have left behind.  Not that they are aware of having suffered any loss, mind you.

David Young Cameron, "The Summer Isles" (1935)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How To Live, Part Twenty-Three: Idleness

Most of the pre-modern Chinese poets were civil servants.  Thus, their lives are generally similar in outline.  First came the rigorous civil service examination, which required extensive knowledge of the Chinese poetic tradition, including its strict rules of prosody.  (The next time you are pondering whether humanity has "progressed" over the past few millennia, consider whether the civil servants of the country in which you live are required to demonstrate knowledge of poetry as a condition of employment.)

Next came a career of shifting bureaucratic postings, often to far-flung provinces of the kingdom.  This accounts for the numerous poems of departure, and of longing for home, that appear in Chinese poetry, as well as for the many laments for family members and friends who will never be seen again. These careers were often marked by periods of exile for running afoul of higher authorities, followed by reinstatement, and assignment to yet another remote district.

Finally, if a poet was fortunate, came retirement, often to the countryside. This was seldom a prosperous retirement:  poets might earn some degree of fame, but they were hardly ever wealthy.

I am very fond of the poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (also known as T'ao Yuan-ming) (365-427), whose life followed this course, with a difference that is crucial to his poetry:  he left the civil service after only 13 years, and moved to the country to become a farmer.

A long time ago
I went on a journey,
Right to the corner
Of the Eastern Ocean.
The road there
Was long and winding,
And stormy waves
Barred my path.
What made me
Go this way?
Hunger drove me
Into the World.
I tried hard
To fill my belly,
And even a little
Seemed a lot.
But this was clearly
A bad bargain,
So I went home
And lived in idleness.

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

Roger Fry (1866-1934), "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

In his translation of the previous poem, Arthur Waley uses the word "idleness" to describe T'ao Ch'ien's life upon his return home to the countryside.  But we should be careful not to take the word in its sometimes pejorative sense.  I, for one, find idleness to be a positive state of being, allied with repose and serenity.  In this, I follow Robert Louis Stevenson:

"Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity."

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in William Lyon Phelps (editor), Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1906), page 27 (italics in the original).  I realize that there is an element of playfulness in Stevenson's essay, but I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed above.

Further, when it comes to traditional Chinese culture, it is essential to consider "idleness" in the context of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which place great emphasis upon a detached, contemplative life.

The following untitled poem by T'ao Ch'ien is the first in a series of four poems in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."

In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

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

Watson provides this note to lines 9 and 10:  "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres.  A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese style house."  Ibid, page 129.  Repetitions of the sort that appear in line 13 ("dim dim") and line 14 ("drifting drifting") are a common feature of Chinese poetry from its earliest days.

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

The active "idleness" of a contemplative life of repose is embodied in this untitled poem.

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 (1918).

Line 4 is lovely, but Waley's phrase "a heart that is distant" might be subject to misinterpretation.  I do not think it is intended to suggest coldness or a lack of emotion.  Burton Watson translates the line in this fashion:  "With a mind remote, the region too grows distant."  Waley and Watson are the two best translators of Chinese poetry into English, so their different versions of the line suggest that T'ao Ch'ien's words are subtle. My best guess is that the concept here is one of detachment from worldly affairs:  the "noise" of the World, with which we are all familiar.

Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)

Saturday, November 22, 2014


The approach of winter has got me to thinking about the small things I will miss until spring returns.  The sudden whirr-vibration of a hummingbird -- often unseen, only heard and felt.  The kingdoms of sand painstakingly constructed by ants along the seams in the sidewalks.  Butterflies "flying crooked" (as Robert Graves puts it).  The list is not exhaustive.

And -- ah, yes -- the criss-crossing threads left by spiders as they traverse the gardens and the meadows.

            Early Morning

The path
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.

The path
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider's web.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press 2000).

Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "Near Leatherhead" (c. 1939)

The following poem is often characterized as one of Robert Frost's "dark" poems.  But this whole "dark Frost" versus "light Frost" dichotomy has always puzzled me.  There is darkness and lightness throughout his poetry, beginning with the first poem in his first volume.  And often in the same poem.  Here, then, is a meditation upon a spider going about its business. Dark?  Light?  Both?  Neither?  


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? --
If design govern in a thing so small.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

All that build-up about a calculating, perhaps malevolent, perhaps heartless Universe, and then the sleight-of-hand in the final line.  But it is not as though Frost has not warned us:

It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.

Robert Frost, In the Clearing (1962).

Christopher Nevinson, "The Weir, Charenton"

I have never been able to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for the poetry of Walt Whitman.  I appreciate his cosmos-wide, visionary energy.  But he wears me out.  It is all at too high a pitch.  He reminds me of one of those insistent, often over-educated, self-styled prophets one occasionally encounters in public spaces.  But there are times when he lowers the register a bit.

                    A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect             them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).

Whitman being who he is, "O my soul" necessarily makes an appearance. But the conceit here is a lovely one.  And the particulars are lovely as well: "filament, filament, filament" and "the ductile anchor," for instance.

Christopher Nevinson, "A Winter Landscape" (1926)

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often commented upon the knack of Chinese and Japanese poets for getting to the heart of the matter in as few words as possible, with no loss of depth or intimation.  To wit:

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world.

Saigyo (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

Christopher Nevinson, "View of the Sussex Weald" (c. 1927)