Monday, September 15, 2014

The Names Of Stars

I do not know the names of stars.  I have come across them in reading, of course.  But, looking at the crowded sky, I cannot place the names to the faces.  Though I find the faces beautiful and entrancing.

Mind you, I am not flaunting my ignorance.  I would love to find myself in the company of someone who could look up into that vastness and begin to name names.  In the same way, I admire those who can rattle off the Latin binomials for flora and fauna.  But my resources are limited.  As I have noted before, I am the sort of person who reads a poem or two a day, and then needs to turn them over and over, daydreaming all the while. Becoming a namer of stars is simply not in the cards, I'm afraid.

I do, however, have a favorite piece of star-lore.  What we, in English, call "the Milky Way," the Japanese call ama-no-gawa:  "river of the heavens" or "river of the sky" or "river of Heaven."  I believe that I can locate the river of Heaven, if pressed.

Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)

This apostrophe on my ignorance was prompted by coming across the following poem.

                         The South

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars,
from the bench of shadow to have watched
those scattered lights
that my ignorance has learned no names for,
nor their places in constellations,
to have heard the note of water
in the cistern,
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle,
the silence of the sleeping bird,
the arch of the entrance, the damp
-- these things perhaps are the poem.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by W. S. Merwin), Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

"The silence of the sleeping bird" is particularly nice, I think.

Paul Drury, "September" (1928)

Still, the naming of stars is a lovely thing, reminiscent of the naming of flowers:  heart's ease, lad's love, forget-me-nots . . .  Thomas Hardy's phrase "constellated daisies" comes suddenly to mind, as well as Andrew Young's lines about a field of daisies at night:  "For where the folded daisies are/In every one I see a star."

                    Mirach, Antares . . .

Mirach, Antares, Vega, Caph, Alcor --
From inch-wide eyes I scan their aeon-old flames,
Enthralled:  then wonder which enchants me more --
They, or the incantation of their names.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).

Beset with insomnia, Ivor Gurney often went on night-long walks in the country and the city.  Not surprisingly, stars and their constellations often appear in his poetry as his companions on these walks.

                         Stars Sliding

The stars are sliding wanton through trees,
The sky is sliding steady over all.
Great Bear to Gemini will lose his place
And Cygnus over world's brink slip and fall.

Follow-my-Leader's not so bad a game.
But were it leap frog:  O to see the shoots
And tracks of glory; Scorpions and Swans tame
And Argo swarmed with Bulls and other brutes.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Graham Sutherland, "Michaelmas" (1928)

Finally, on constellations, there is this.  We cannot say for certain that it was composed by Edward Thomas.  But we do know that it was found on a page in his daughter Bronwen's autograph album.  It is untitled.

This is the constellation of the Lyre:
Its music cannot ever tire,
For it is silent.  No man need fear it:
Unless he wants to, he will not hear it.
                                                         E. T.

Cardiff University Library Archive
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (Oxford)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Harbors

I have been in a vague 1920s mood this week, and thus found myself perusing Georgian Poetry, 1920-1922, the final installment of Edward Marsh's five-volume series that began in December of 1912.  There is something homely (in the sense of "simple, plain, unsophisticated") and comforting about these volumes, with their paper-covered boards, gilt-lettering, and now age-toned pages.

I realize that I am constructing a dream-world:  how can I possibly say that I have been in "a vague 1920s mood this week" when I have no conception of what the 1920s were like in England, across the sea?  But escapism is what it is.  I confess:  at times I long for a different world entirely.

Yes, I know that human nature was no different then, that a horrific war had just ended, and that economic calamity and another war were on the horizon.  Yet there is something fundamentally decent, restrained, circumspect, and seemly about the poems one encounters in Marsh's anthologies.  Something that is the exact opposite of the world in which we now find ourselves.

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Earlier this year I posted poems by William Kerr and J. D. C. Pellow that appeared in Georgian Poetry, 1920-1922.  A few days ago, I discovered this poem in the same volume.

                              Evening

When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;

When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;

-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).  The poem was originally published in Orchard and Vineyard (1921).

The image of the lights of the village "quivering down through water with the stars" is particularly fine.  As is "slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world."  And, at my age, I find the concluding lines something to aspire to. (Although I have no illusions about "the riding-light of truth" beaming overhead!  But, as for "gracious in retreat":  one would hope so.)

Richard Eurich, "Robin Hood's Bay in Wartime" (1940)

I have a soft spot for poems set in peaceful harbors at night.  Hence, "Evening" brought this poem to mind (which, coincidentally, was also published in 1921).

                       Boats at Night

How lovely is the sound of oars at night
     And unknown voices, borne through windless air,
From shadowy vessels floating out of sight
     Beyond the harbour lantern's broken glare
To those piled rocks that make on the dark wave
     Only a darker stain.  The splashing oars
Slide softly on as in an echoing cave
     And with the whisper of the unseen shores
Mingle their music, till the bell of night
     Murmurs reverberations low and deep
That droop towards the land in swooning flight
     Like whispers from the lazy lips of sleep.
The oars grow faint.  Below the cloud-dim hill
The shadows fade and now the bay is still.

Edward Shanks (1892-1953), The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).

Think of it:  T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land would be published in the following year.  I was once entranced by it, and I still find it . . . interesting. But it now seems overwrought.  And Eliot seems full of himself.  When it comes to "modernism," I suppose I am an apostate.  "Evening" and "Boats at Night" seem more, well, human.  These sorts of poems may not be ironic enough, or unillusioned enough, for some "modern" tastes.  They certainly do not pass muster for the avant-garde.  They are unashamedly "old-fashioned."  All the better.

Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

Finally, a poem which (for me, at least) has the same evocative feeling as the poems by Sackville-West and Shanks.

     A Ship, an Isle, a Sickle Moon

A ship, an isle, a sickle moon --
With few but with how splendid stars
The mirrors of the sea are strewn
Between their silver bars!
          *     *     *
An isle beside an isle she lay,
The pale ship anchored in the bay,
While in the young moon's port of gold
A star-ship -- as the mirrors told --
Put forth its great and lonely light
To the unreflecting Ocean, Night.
And still, a ship upon her seas,
The isle and the island cypresses
Went sailing on without the gale:
And still there moved the moon so pale,
A crescent ship without a sail!

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), in John Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (1916).  The ellipses are in the original.

Flecker was of a romantic bent, which was further colored by the time he spent in the Mediterranean and the Middle East as a consular official.  In tone and diction, his poetry often has a Romantic-Victorian feel to it. However, in a number of poems he adopted a more direct, less florid approach, while still retaining his distinctive sensibility.  (In this regard, I recommend a perceptive essay (unfinished) that he wrote about A. E. Housman.  Flecker remarks of A Shropshire Lad:  "[T]here are no cacophonous lines.  Mr. Housman has achieved this fine result mainly because he has used pure spoken English with hardly any admixture of poetic verbiage."  James Elroy Flecker, Collected Prose (1920), page 226.) It is a pity he died so young.

Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

"Nine Leaves A Minute"

October has long been my favorite month.  However, the astonishing beauty of this past week is prompting me to equivocate.  What, then, of September?

Yesterday afternoon, beneath a cloudless sky, I walked west down an avenue of trees beside a marina.  A pleasant breeze -- without the underlying chill that often accompanies late summer breezes -- caused the rigging of the sailboats on my left to whistle and whirr, while the tackle tinkled like cowbells in a distant Alpine meadow.

A hundred or so yards in front of me, the waters of Puget Sound glittered silver and blue, stretching to the green-blue islands and mountains on the opposite shore.  Out on the Sound, about a quarter of a mile away, a large white cruise ship headed north to Canada and Alaska.

And the leaves, what of the leaves?  The leaves are still mostly green, although a few yellow precursors spun down around me as I walked.  A few others followed me down the path toward the water.  Gentle reminders.

As I walked, a thought occurred to me:  "What if eternity is like this?"

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

Thomas Hardy dated the following poem "November 8, 1923."  Yet I think the poem has a September feel to it.

          The Best She Could

        Nine leaves a minute
        Swim down shakily;
        Each one fain would spin it
        Straight to earth; but, see,
        How the sharp airs win it
Slantwise away! -- Hear it say,
"Now we have finished our summer show
Of what we knew the way to do:
Alas, not much!  But, as things go,
As fair as any.  And night-time calls,
        And the curtain falls!"

        Sunlight goes on shining
        As if no frost were here,
        Blackbirds seem designing
        Where to build next year;
        Yet is warmth declining:
And still the day seems to say,
"Saw you how Dame Summer drest?
Of all God taught her she bethought her!
Alas, not much!  And yet the best
She could, within the too short time
        Granted her prime."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

"Nine leaves a minute/Swim down shakily" brings to mind a lovely line by Edward Thomas:  "The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow."

James McIntosh Patrick, "Road to Craigowl"

For me, September has two opposing poles.  First:  "Before us lies eternity; our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell."  The prelude to which is this:

The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path --
Autumn was over him.

W. B. Yeats, "Ephemera," The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889).

Here is the other pole.

                      This Solitude of Cataracts

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.
There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.
He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (1950).

The poem begins with a restated version of Heraclitus's famous dictum, which has often been visited by poets.  (For instance, Derek Mahon in "Heraclitus on Rivers" and Louis MacNeice in "Variation on Heraclitus.") But Stevens is not content with Heraclitus's axiom.  Thus, the heart of the poem begins with:  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over./He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing." Which leads, ultimately, to the wish to be "released from destruction."

But Stevens, Yeats, and the rest of us know that release from destruction is not in the cards.

And yet, and yet . . . as I walked down the path yesterday under the trees, toward the glittering water, I wanted the moment never to end.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn Afternoon"

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fireflies And Stars

I once lived in Japan for a year, so I can attest to the fact that the summer heat there can be a stun to the senses.  But, as is usually the case in life, there are compensations.  Thus, for instance, I soon came to share the fondness of the Japanese for cicadas (semi) and fireflies (hotaru), two inhabitants of the "other worlds" that I referred to in my previous post.

When I think back on that summer, what often comes to mind is the constant shrill cry of the semi and the sight of dozens of hotaru floating above the grass beside a river that I sometimes walked along in the evening.  I will save the cicadas for another occasion.  Today I would like to consider the fireflies.

As one might expect, fireflies often find their way into haiku.

     The first fire-fly!
It was off, away, --
     The wind left in my hand.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 214.

     A fire-fly flitted by:
"Look!" I almost said, --
     But I was alone.

Taigi (1709-1772) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 216.

     Here and there,
The night-grass is green
     From the fire-flies.

Hojo (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 218.

The first two haiku capture wonderfully the childlike joy I suspect most of us have felt when we come upon fireflies.  "Look!"  And then the urge to chase after them.  But the third haiku is something else entirely.  About it, I will keep my mouth shut and let it speak for itself.

Eugene Jansson, "View from Kattgrand" (1894)

Of course, the fascination with fireflies knows no boundaries of time or space.  In the final sentences of his last published work, John Ruskin writes:

"We . . . walked together that evening on the hills above [Siena], where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air.  How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves.  How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, 'Cor magis tibi Sena pandit,' and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars."

John Ruskin, Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life, Volume III (1900), pages 181-182 (italics in original).  Ruskin translated "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit" as follows:  "More than her gates, Siena opens her heart to you."  John Ruskin, Val d'Arno (1890 edition), page 26.

It is lovely that Ruskin ended his literary endeavors with this image of the fireflies of Tuscany.  The image haunted him.  Here it is again, in an earlier work:

"The Dominican convent is situated at the bottom of the slope of olives, distinguished only by its narrow and low spire; a cypress avenue recedes from it towards Florence . . . No extended prospect is open to it; though over the low wall, and through the sharp, thickset olive leaves, may be seen one silver gleam of the Arno, and, at evening, the peaks of the Carrara mountains, purple against the twilight, dark and calm, while the fire-flies glance beneath, silent and intermittent, like stars upon the rippling of mute, soft sea."

John Ruskin, On the Old Road, Volume I, Part 1 (1885), pages 112-113.

Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)

And now, from Japan and Italy, onward to New England.

               Fireflies in the Garden

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

This is vintage Frost:  inflation combined with deflation.  And perhaps (although I may be mistaken) there is one of those Frostian ambiguities. To wit:  what does "start" mean in "Achieve at times a very star-like start"?  A "start" as in a "beginning"?  Or a "start" as in a "sudden involuntary movement of the body, occasioned by surprise, terror, joy or grief, or the recollection of something forgotten"?  OED.  But I may simply be slow on the uptake (as well as being in violation of my own oft-stated strictures about over-interpreting poems).

Eugene Jansson, "Riddarfjarden, Stockholm" (1898)

To close, here is Ruskin once more, in a letter written from Pistoia:

"I have just come in from an evening walk among the stars and fireflies. One hardly knows where one has got to between them, for the flies flash, as you know, exactly like stars on the sea, and the impression to the eye is as if one was walking on water.  I was not the least prepared for their intense brilliancy.  They dazzled me like fireworks, and it was very heavenly to see them floating, field beyond field, under the shadowy vines."

John Ruskin, Letter to John James Ruskin (May 28, 1845), in E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (editors), The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXV (Praeterita and Dilecta), page 562, footnote 1.

Harald Sohlberg, "Midsummer Night"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Other Worlds

As August draws to a close, a visit to Thomas Hardy seems appropriate.  In a recent post, I mentioned an encounter with five Canadian geese.  The flock has now increased to twelve, circling the shoreline, calling.  As often happens when the World arcs into autumn, a Hardy mood has begun to steal over me.

              An August Midnight

                                I
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter -- winged, horned, and spined --
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands. . . .

                                II
Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
-- My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
'God's humblest, they!' I muse.  Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

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

Gerald Gardiner (1902-1959), "Norfolk Brick Kiln"

The thoughts expressed by Hardy at the close of the poem bring to mind this poem by Michael Longley.

            Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

I do not believe that Hardy and Longley are sentimentalizing our fellow creatures, but simply pointing out the possibility of unknown affinities that we ought to attend to.  This may be accompanied by a dose of humility, which is never a bad thing.

John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"

Perhaps we do not inhabit wholly different worlds after all.  Whether one is a strict evolutionist or a strict creationist, a scientist or a theologian, it matters not: I'd venture to say that a vital current, a common thread, wends its way through all these worlds.  Which is not always an unmixed blessing, some might argue.

                 Important Insects

Important insects clamber to the top
Of stalks; look round with uninquiring eyes
And find the world incomprehensible;
Then totter back to earth and circumscribe
Irregular territories pointlessly.
Some insects narcissistically assume
Patterns of spots or stripes or burnished sheen
For purposes of sex or camouflage,
Some tweet or rasp, though most are without speech
Except a low, subliminal, mindless chatter.
Take heart: those scientists are wrong who find
Elements of the human in their systems,
Despite their busy, devious trafficking
Important insects simply do not matter.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

I. E. Shaw, "Rhuddlan Castle, Denbighshire" (1988)

The World is reticent, as are the inhabitants of all the worlds that surround us.  But bear in mind that this talking business is overrated.  (Do not get me started on modern devices of "communication.")  To be reticent is not to be inarticulate.

     Grasshopper!
Be the keeper of the grave-yard,
     When I die.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page xxvi.

Thomas Sheard (1866-1921), "After the Service"

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Dream Beneath A Summer Moon

As I have mentioned before, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is the Shakespeare of Japan.  Or, to be fair:  Shakespeare is the Basho of England (and the English-speaking world).  Without Basho, haiku likely would not have developed into a serious form of art.  He transformed it from a sort of pleasant diversion -- an element of social gatherings in which sequences of poems were created -- into something else entirely.

This is one of Basho's best-known poems:

     an octopus pot --
inside, a short-lived dream
     under a summer moon.

Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 201.

Some background information.  "An octopus pot is an unglazed earthenware vessel made for trapping an octopus, which has the habit of escaping into a dark hole when it is alarmed.  Fishermen string a number of these pots on a rope, sink them into the sea, and pull them up after octopuses have entered them."  Ibid.  Basho wrote the haiku while visiting Akashi, a seaside town near Kobe.  The poem bears the heading:  "Staying overnight in Akashi."  Ibid.  Thus, as is the case with nearly all haiku, Basho's verse is based on direct personal experience -- a moment in time.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952), "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)

Here is the original in romaji (transliterated Japanese using Romanized spelling):

tako-tsubo ya
hakanaki yume wo
natsu no tsuki

Tako is "octopus."  Tsubo is "pot" or "jar."  Ya is a particle of emphasis, akin to "!".  Hakanaki means "fleeting," "transient," "short-lived," or "ephemeral."  Yume is "dream" (as a noun).  Wo can be described as a "noun-following particle marking the direct object of a clause." Kodansha's Romanized Japanese-English Dictionary (1993), page 375.  Natsu is "summer."  Tsuki is "moon."  No is another "noun-following particle," which, in this case, turns the final line into: "moon of summer" or "summer moon."  It all seems fairly simple, doesn't it?  Deceptively simple, as is the case with all good haiku.

Charles Ginner, "Flask Walk, Skyline" (1934)

Here are a few other English translations of the haiku, for purposes of comparison.

     The octopus trap:
Fleeting dreams
     Under the summer moon.

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 41.  When considering the various translations, bear in mind that, in Japanese, there are no plural forms of nouns:  singular or plural is a matter of context.  Nor is there an equivalent to "a" or "the."

     The jars of octopus --
brief dreams
     under the summer moon.

Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 22.

     An octopus pot:
An ephemeral dream
     Under the summer moon.

Toshiharu Oseko, Basho's Haiku (Maruzen 1990), page 107.

Charles Ginner, "Hartland Point from Boscastle" (1941)

What, then, are we to make of this?  What does it "mean"?  The notion of "explaining" a haiku is one that I resist mightily.  With apologies, I will refer to a recent post:  a haiku is like a moose swimming across a lake and walking off into the deep woods.  Or like the buck emerging from the lake in Robert Frost's "The Most of It."  The moose and the buck are what they are.

Basho is reporting what he saw and felt.  Make no mistake:  there is consummate art in what he does.  But there is no symbolism.  And there are no "tropes" or metaphors or allegories.  Basho's moment is what it is.  But that does not mean that it does not have intimations and implications and depths beyond words.

Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko --
Before you have been there, you have many regrets;
When you have been there and come back,
It is just simply misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko.

Su Tung-P'o (also known as Su Shih) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido 1949).

Charles Ginner, "Rooftops"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Harbingers

One of my walks takes me along the shore of Puget Sound, past the docks of a marina -- "yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay/like race-horses." (Derek Mahon, "Kinsale.")  At one point, there is a row of a dozen or so maples beside the path.  I noticed this week that, although it is high August, the maples are already in the midst of autumn, their leaves a bright combination of reds and greens, redder in the direction of the rising sun, it seems.

As I walked on, five Canadian geese suddenly flew overhead from behind me, honking, going about their business.  The very sound of autumn.

George Vicat Cole, "Harvest Time" (1860)

As I have noted before, Howard Nemerov is a wonderful poet of autumn -- and of late summer, and the arc into autumn, as well.

                    Summer's Elegy

Day after day, day after still day,
The summer has begun to pass away.
Starlings at twilight fly clustered and call,
And branches bend, and leaves begin to fall.
The meadow and the orchard grass are mown,
And the meadowlark's house is cut down.

The little lantern bugs have doused their fires,
The swallows sit in rows along the wires.
Berry and grape appear among the flowers
Tangled against the wall in secret bowers,
And cricket now begins to hum the hours
Remaining to the passion's slow procession
Down from the high place and the golden session
Wherein the sun was sacrificed for us.
A failing light, no longer numinous,
Now frames the long and solemn afternoons
Where butterflies regret their closed cocoons.
We reach the place unripe, and made to know
As with a sudden knowledge that we go
Away forever, all hope of return
Cut off, hearing the crackle of the burn-
ing blade behind us, and the terminal sound
Of apples dropping on the dry ground.

Howard Nemerov, The Blue Swallows (1967).

This is a lovely poem, but I would respectfully disagree with these lines:  "A failing light, no longer numinous,/Now frames the long and solemn afternoons."  My friendly objection is to this: "no longer numinous."  The OED defines "numinous" as follows:  "Giving rise to a sense of the spiritually transcendent; (esp. of things in art or the natural world) evoking a heightened sense of the mystical or sublime; awe-inspiring."  In my humble opinion, the slanting yellow light of late summer and early autumn is as numinous (and evocative) as light, and the World, get.

George Vicat Cole, "A Surrey Cornfield" (1864)

Here, Nemerov captures the essence of this time of year in four lines, providing further confirmation that less is often more.

                         Threshold

When in still air and still in summertime
A leaf has had enough of this, it seems
To make up its mind to go; fine as a sage
Its drifting in detachment down the road.

Howard Nemerov, Gnomes & Occasions (1973).

The emotions evoked by the first falling leaf of incipient autumn transcend time and place.  This was written in Japan nearly three centuries before Nemerov's poem:

     The leaf of the paulownia,
With not a breath of wind,
     Falls.

Boncho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 130.

George Vicat Cole, "Harvesting in the Thames Valley" (1888)

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Yon Far Country"

I would like to stay in "the land of lost content" for a moment longer.

Into my heart an air that kills
     From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
     What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
     I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
     And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman, Poem XL, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

In my previous post, I placed this poem in apposition to the phrase "the past is a foreign country."  The "far country" referred to by Housman is the lost, irredeemable past.  In Housman's case, the defining feature of that irrecoverable past is the boundless prospect of love, a love that proved to be unrequited.

George Rose (1882-1955), "Fyfield, Essex" (c. 1951)

The "far country" of the past can be found in another poem by Housman.

Alas, the country whence I fare,
     It is where I would stay;
And where I would not, it is there
     That I shall be for aye.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).  "Aye" is used in the sense of "ever, always, continually."  OED.

Housman's two poems bring to mind this:

                         Memory

Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in William Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1903).

Although Housman was at pains to point out that he was not a Stoic in the Greek and Roman philosophical sense, I would suggest that he was nevertheless a lower-case stoic in terms of the expression of his emotions. He would likely find Rossetti's poem to be a bit florid.  But I think it fits.

George Rose, "Breaking the Clod"

I am also drawn back to J. L. Carr's novel A Month in the Country, which, as I have noted before, contains echoes of Housman's poetry.  Some brief background:  the story is centered on Tom Birkin, a veteran of the First World War who has received a commission to restore a Medieval wall-painting in a small church in "Oxgodby."  Here are the novel's concluding paragraphs (for those of you who have not read the book, and may wish to, there are no "spoilers" in the following passage):

"And, standing before the great spread of colour, I felt the old tingling excitement and a sureness that the time would come when some stranger would stand there too and understand.

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in that place, regretting his land of lost content.  And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart -- knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.  They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

All this happened so long ago.  And I never returned, never wrote, never met anyone who might have given me news of Oxgodby.  So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow."

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980; revised 1990).

George Rose, "The Usurper's Field"