Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Balances"

I am troubled by the extent to which contemporary society and culture have become politicized.  In particular, I am concerned that the standard of judgment for thoughts, words, and deeds has become a political one. Political agendas have absolutely nothing to do with what is true, or with what is right or wrong.

This is why I am highly suspicious of politicians, social and political "activists," and their media mouthpieces.  They believe (honestly or disingenuously -- I leave it to you to decide) that they know what is best for the rest of us.  Perhaps I am being unfair, but I have always had the feeling that an incipient totalitarian lurks within the soul of every soi-disant "activist."

               Smuggler

Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

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

"Peace, peace, peace."  Exactly.  It is worth noting that MacCaig wrote this poem in June of 1964.  Think of how "bulging words" have proliferated over the past half-century.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "The Shepherd"

People are free to believe what they wish to believe, and I respect their right to do so.  (As long as belief does not turn into the coercion of, or the commission of violence upon, non-believers.)  But I do object to the infiltration of political beliefs (for that is what they are: beliefs, not truths) into the words that we use to describe human life, and into the language that we use to describe the way in which the individual soul makes its way in the World.

To use an old-fashioned -- but wonderful -- word:  when it comes to how we live our life, and the state of our soul, political discourse and political judgments are "humbug."

               The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Memories of the Sea" (1936)

The "activists" think they have a hook:  none of us wishes to appear apathetic about the many ills of the world.  Shouldn't we all be "compassionate," "concerned," and "engaged" in the way that they would like us to be?  In a word:  "No."

                    Balances

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine Haswell Miller, "Studio Window" (1934)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Partridges At Twilight And Summer Grasses

On the one hand, the news of the world counsels us, on a daily basis: Abandon all hope!  On the other hand, the modern gods of Science, Progress, and utopian political schemes whisper in our ear:  We know the Truth.  We have a plan for you.  Trust us.  Both pieces of advice are falsehoods.

Consider the messengers.  The people who deliver these messages have no heart.  The individual soul is of no interest to them.  The media?  Social scientists?  Politicians?  Those in search of heart and soul need to look elsewhere.

Where, then, should we turn?  Well, as one might expect, I'm inclined to suggest that poetry may be a good place to start.  It is not the only place, of course.  We are in search of that which is "true and not feigning," wherever we can find it.

If we start our search with poetry, we can begin at random.  We would soon discover that a poem written during the first century, B. C., in the Roman Empire, a poem written in China during the T'ang Dynasty, a poem written in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century, and a poem written in Scotland in the 20th century all say essentially the same thing about how we live.

Ian Fleming (1906-1994), "Fisher Houses, Arbroath" (1949)

Let's start with Horace, addressing his female acquaintance Leuconoe.

Ah do not strive too much to know,
     My dear Leuconoe,
What the kind gods design to do
     With me and thee.

Ah do not you consult the stars,
     Contented bear thy doom,
Rather than thus increase thy fears
     For what will come:

Whether they'll give one winter more,
     Or else make this thy last;
Which breaks the waves on Tyrrhene shore
     With many a blast.

Be wise, and drink; cut off long cares
     From thy contracted span,
Nor stretch extensive hopes and fears
     Beyond a man:

E'en whilst we speak, the Envious Time
     Doth make swift haste away;
Then seize the present, use thy prime,
     Nor trust another day.

Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book I, Ode 11, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684).

Critical opinion is divided as to whether Horace is providing sage advice to a young friend or wooing a prospective lover.  But, whatever his motives, the advice is clear:  carpe diem (which Creech translates as "seize the present" rather than the usual "seize the day"), for you may not be here tomorrow.

Ian Fleming, "Window on the Sea" (1965)

The post-Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of society, and in our ever-advancing march into a promised utopian future, is, not surprisingly, accompanied by ignorance of both human nature and history on the part of the true believers.  But, should the busybodies wish to educate themselves (an unlikely prospect), they need not look far to discover what they ought to have known from the start:  for centuries, poets have been telling us exactly how human nature and history work.

                    The Ruin of the Capital of Yueh

Hither returned Kou Chien, the King of Yueh, in triumph;
He had destroyed the Kingdom of Wu.
His loyal men came home in brilliance of brocade,
And the women of the court thronged the palace
Like flowers that fill the spring --
Now only a flock of partridges are flying in the twilight.

Li Po (translated by Shigeyoshi Obata), in Shigeyoshi Obata, The Works of Li Po (E. P. Dutton 1922).

The Kingdom of Wu was conquered by the Kingdom of Yueh in the 5th century, B. C.  A century later, the Kingdom of Yueh was conquered by the Kingdom of Chu.  A century or so later the Kingdom of Chu was conquered by the Qin Dynasty . . . . .

The poem brings to mind a passage from Herodotus:

"For the cities which were formerly great, have most of them become insignificant; and such as are at present powerful, were weak in the olden time.  I shall therefore discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never continues long in one stay."

Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson), in George Rawlinson, History of Herodotus, Volume 1, Book I, Section 5 (Fourth Edition 1880), page 148.

Ian Fleming, "Arbroath Harbour" (1952)

Basho wrote the following haiku in 1689, when visiting Hiraizumi, the site of a 12th century battle between two samurai clans.

     Ah!  Summer grasses!
All that remains
     Of the warriors' dreams.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 309.

Ian Fleming, "Arbroath Harbour" (1951)

Finally, Scotland in the 20th century brings us full circle.  Kingdoms, dynasties, clans.  An individual life.  One and the same.
                 
                   So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind's neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one --
Now you'd look very close before you knew
If it's the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

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

As I have noted in the past, I cannot claim to have gained any wisdom during my years on Earth.  I am not qualified to give advice on how to live. But I do know that human nature never changes.  And I also know that the World is a paradise just as it is.  At this moment.

Ian Fleming, "Fisherman's Window"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Singing In The Night

In recent years, scenes from past dreams have begun to float into my mind during my waking hours.  Not entire dream sequences, but brief snippets:  a room, a landscape, a face.  When they first arrive, I take these snippets for memories, but I then quickly realize that I am, with no conscious intent to do so, revisiting a dream (or, better: a dream is revisiting me).  All of this takes place within the space of a few seconds.

For all I know, this may be a sign of pathology.  But I am not looking for an explanation.  Nor am I walking around in a fugue state.  However, it has prompted me to wonder whether everything we have ever experienced, felt, or thought remains sitting inside us.  If that is indeed the case, what prompts these things to float up?  Why do some seemingly commonplace incidents continue to haunt us, while major "life events" have no hold upon us?

              Chance Pleasures

Smiles from strangers met but once,
     On simplest affairs,
When nature welcomed circumstance,
     May last us years.
And sunbursts over nameless plains,
     Not homes to us, shall gild
Further adventures with the lens
     Of life in our home field.

One cannot count nor reckon thus,
     Nor tell at the time;
No use to note it down, no use,
     When such spells gleam, --
When such winds stir such linden leaves,
     Such lamps shine late and pale
Over empty quays, unmeaning waves --
     But wait;  at length, the spell!

Edmund Blunden, Poems 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

Yes, that's the nub of it:  "But wait; at length, the spell!"  Which in turn begs the question:  why the spell?

Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892-1957), "Harlech Castle"

I am not suggesting that everything that resides within us is endlessly fascinating.  And I am not seeking to follow a winding trail into a dark wood where a revelation lies waiting.  (The contemporary proclivity for writing (and reading) self-regarding memoirs of this sort puzzles me.)  I am reminded of the title of Philip Larkin's poem about deciding to stop keeping a diary:  "Forget What Did."  Precisely.  All of those Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

And yet.  One of our primary obligations as human beings is to pay attention to what goes on outside us and around us, which is invariably more interesting than what goes on inside us.  Which does not mean that we leave ourselves out of account when paying attention.  The trick is to not let our overweening sense of self overwhelm the integrity and the beauty of the particulars.

             A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The "tree, of many, one,"
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962). The quotation in line 5 ("tree, of many, one") comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":  "But there's a tree, of many, one,/A single field which I have look'd upon,/Both of them speak of something that is gone."  I presume this reference accounts for Blunden's title (contrasting his ode of ten lines with Wordsworth's of over 200 lines).

Larkin gets it exactly right (I realize that I say this quite often) in the final two stanzas of "Forget What Did":

And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come,
And when the birds go.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard, "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"

This is where poetry (and painting and music) come in.  A beautiful and moving work of art cannot be created unless its creator first pays strict and loving attention.  Then, if he or she is skilled, and visited by the Muses, the rest of us can see and feel the World in a way that honors the World's particulars while miraculously -- if only briefly -- giving us the sense that we and the World's particulars are all in this together.

                         Nocturne

Blue water . . . a clear moon . . .
In the moonlight the white herons are flying.
Listen!  Do you hear the girls who gather water-chestnuts?
They are going home in the night, singing.

Li Po (translated by Shigeyoshi Obata), in Shigeyoshi Obata, The Works of Li Po (E. P. Dutton 1922).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard, "Dunluce Castle"

Friday, January 9, 2015

Skylark

I have always been fond of sparrows -- those dappled, cheerful, humble creatures.  So the thought of the soul as a sparrow passing "from cold to cold" during our flitting, fleeting time on earth is, for me, a lovely and congenial one.

Birds are, in general, well-suited to serve as emblems of the soul, don't you think?  Today a huge blue sky suddenly appeared, mottled with high, sunlight-filled swathes of white fish-scale clouds.  It could have been a mid-summer's day.  I thought of the skylark, that sprite of the upper air.

     In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
     Free of all things.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 198.

Here is an alternative translation:

above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark sings

Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 156.

Blyth and Ueda differ most markedly in their translation of the middle phrase of Basho's haiku: "mono ni mo tsukazu."  Mono means "thing."  In this context, ni means "to" and mo means "even."  Tsukazu is a negative form of the verb meaning "to be attached."  Hence, the phrase might be translated (extremely roughly) as: "to thing not even attached."

Ueda's translation is, therefore, closer to the literal meaning.  Blyth takes more liberties with "free of all things" (including moving the phrase to the end of the haiku).  But I think that both interpretations are lovely, and I find it difficult to choose between the two.  And I think they both capture the essence of the haiku (which, of course, best remains unspoken).

Bernard Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)

I'd say that the skylark and the nightingale vie for the honor of the bird most apostrophized by William Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets. (Come to think of it, this may be true of all poets.)  Both birds make an appearance in the following poem by Wordsworth.  They are not explicitly linked to the human soul.  However, when it comes to Romantic poetry, nearly everything is presumed to be, as a matter of course, either an embodiment, or a reflection, of our souls.  This is not a criticism, merely an observation.

                         To a Skylark

Ethereal minstrel!  pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine;
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works, Volume II (1849).

The poem was composed in 1825.  When it was first published in 1827, it contained the following additional stanza after the first stanza:

To the last point of vision, and beyond,
Mount, daring warbler! that love-prompted strain,
('Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond)
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might'st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy spring.

William Wordsworth, The Poetical Works, Volume II (1827).

After 1843, Wordsworth removed the stanza in editions of his Poetical Works.  To me, the stanza seems somewhat diffuse, and detracts from the comparison between the skylark and the nightingale, as well as from the "Heaven and Home" theme.  I think that the poem is better without it. (However, Wordsworth did make use of the stanza: he inserted it in "A Morning Exercise.")

Samuel Llewellyn, "Sailing at Blakeney" (c. 1938)

Wordsworth's emphasis on the contrast between the skylark's homely nest on the ground and its towering lyrical flights -- the contrast between Home and Heaven -- is also the subject of the following poem, although in a different key.

               Lark Descending

A singing firework; the sun's darling;
     Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence:  see, a small gray bird
     That runs among the weeds.

Edmund Blunden, Poems 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).

"The lark ascending" is the phrase that we are accustomed to see.  (When I see that phrase, I immediately think of Ralph Vaughan Williams's beautiful composition with that title, which was in turn inspired by George Meredith's poem of that name.)  Blunden accomplishes a great deal in a small space.  If we removed the second line, we would have something that looks and sounds a great deal like a haiku.

Joseph Kavanagh (1856-1918), "Gipsy Encampment on the Curragh"

A theme begins to emerge, doesn't it?  The skylark is earthbound, yet drawn towards the heavens, singing.  Perfectly at home in both places, it would seem.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 195.

Here is another translation:

all this long day
and yet wanting to sing more
a skylark

Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, page 155.

However, when considering the skylark as an emblem of the soul, it is perhaps best to conclude with this, which adds the necessary element of irresolvable mystery that each of us carries with us.

     The skylark:
Its voice alone fell,
     Leaving nothing behind.

Ampu (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 165.

Francis Armstrong (1849-1920), "Shap Fells, Westmorland"

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Sparrow. A Fluttering Thing.

Any time is a good time to contemplate the fleeting nature of our life.  But the beginning of a new year is an especially appropriate time to do so. There is a sense of the slate having been wiped clean (well, as much as it can be), and of a fresh opportunity to fully appreciate the yet-unused moments that lie before us.

I had first thought to write:  "Any time is a good time to contemplate the fleeting nature of our soul."  But I thought better of it.  There is no doubt that life is fleeting.  But is that true of the soul?

I realize that, for some moderns, the very idea of the existence of a "soul" is beyond the realm of possibility, and is viewed by them as an outdated superstition of which they have been disabused.  I'm afraid that I have not been disabused.  Thus, the following poem is not simply a historical curiosity for me.  Nor is it anachronistic.  And I find it worth a visit at the turning of the year.

                             Persuasion

"Man's life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That -- while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire -- is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest.  Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes.  Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!"

William Wordsworth, in Abbie Findlay Potts, The Ecclesiastical Sonnets of William Wordsworth: A Critical Edition (Yale University Press 1922).

"The Stranger" referred to in line 13 is Paulinus, who, in 601, was sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  The scene took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

The incident upon which Wordsworth's sonnet is based is found in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731):

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.  The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.  So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.  If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

A. M. Sellar (translator), Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (G. Bell and Sons 1917), pages 116-117.

In her edition of The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, Potts suggests that, based upon certain verbal parallels in his sonnet, Wordsworth likely first encountered Bede's story in The Church History of Britain (1655) by Thomas Fuller (1608-1661).  Potts, The Ecclesiastical Sonnets of William Wordsworth: A Critical Edition, page 224.  Here is Fuller's version:

"Man's life," said he, "O King, is like unto a little sparrow, which, whilst your majesty is feasting by the fire in your parlor with your royal retinue, flies in at one window, and out at another.  Indeed, we see it that short time it remaineth in the house, and then is it well sheltered from wind and weather; but presently it passeth from cold to cold; and whence it came, and whither it goes, we are altogether ignorant.  Thus, we can give some account of our soul during its abode in the body, whilst housed and harbored therein; but where it was before, and how it fareth after, is to us altogether unknown.  If therefore Paulinus's preaching will certainly inform us herein, he deserveth, in my opinion, to be entertained."

Ibid, page 224.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"

The flight of the sparrow in Bede's chronicle brings to mind the death-bed poem of the Emperor Hadrian (76-138), which begins with the line "animula vagula blandula."  The line has been variously translated as:  "My little wand'ring sportful Soule" (John Donne, 1611); "My soul, my pleasant soul and witty" (Henry Vaughan, 1652); "Little soul so sleek and smiling" (Stevie Smith, 1966).  Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995), pages 508-509.  Very sparrow-like.

The following two translations of the entire poem go together quite well with the sparrow in King Edwin's Northumbrian hall, I think.

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
    To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
     But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Hours of Idleness (1807).

Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly
     Lies all neglected, all forgot:
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (1709).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Ishiyakushi"

As for the fate of the soul, this poem, which has appeared here before, is worth revisiting on this occasion.

                      The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
A mist behind it and a mist before.
It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (1889).

There is no mistaking the vital stream that runs from Hadrian through Bede through Wordsworth through Symons.  This progression seems absolutely fresh and contemporary to me.  It makes modern irony and know-it-allness seem stodgy, old-fashioned, and -- no other word fits -- soulless.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Year

How one takes the following New Year's haiku depends upon one's disposition.  I choose to take it in good humor, with a touch of wistfulness.

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds!

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

At the turning of the New Year in Japan, the bells of the Buddhist temples are rung 108 times:  once for each of the 108 desires that are the cause of our life of suffering.  The purpose of the ringing is to bid farewell to those desires.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "The House on the Canal"

As I have noted here in the past, I am not one to draw up New Year's resolutions.  But, if I were of a mind to do so, I would choose this each year:

               . . . we should be careful

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

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

A lifetime's work.  Never finished.

Best wishes for the New Year, dear readers.

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ice And Stars

Here we are "in the bleak mid-winter."  I realize that, by the calendar, winter began just a week ago.  But, as a matter of emotion, it feels as though winter begins sometime in mid- to late-November, when the wind whirrs through the empty trees.  Or so it seems to me.

But things are not all that bleak.  The sun has passed through its lowest arc.  The longest night is behind us.  Things are afoot in the heavens. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote this in another season, but it seems apt now: "The crooked arm of the old oak tree points upwards to the moon."  Dorothy Wordsworth, journal entry for March 24, 1798, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (edited by Pamela Woof) (Oxford University Press 2002), page 150.

"Skating on the K.s' pond last night after eating too much ham.  Eight-thirty.  Many stars.  No moon.  Orion's sword and girdle brilliant and all the other constellations whose names I have forgotten or never knew.  I am reminded of my youth and its skating ponds, of the ardor for strength, courage, and purpose excited in me then by the starlight.  It is nearly the same.  My feelings may be less ardent, the stars seem to burn more tenderly these days, but my openmouthed delight in finding them hung above the dark ice is no less."

John Cheever, in Robert Gottlieb (editor), The Journals of John Cheever (Alfred A. Knopf 1991), page  88.

Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

Although I was never much of a skater during my childhood in Minnesota, I can still recall the lakes being turned into skating rinks in the winter.  My fondest memories are of those lakes at night:  a black expanse overhead; the sound of the slicing skates.  (There is another thread in the pattern as well:  my maternal grandparents first met while skating on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.)

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din,
Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,
The leafless trees, and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,
Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.

     Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That gleam'd upon the ice:  and oftentimes
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks, on either side,
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion; then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopp'd short, yet still the solitary Cliffs
Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll'd
With visible motion her diurnal round;
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch'd
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805 manuscript), Book I, lines 465-489, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Prelude (Oxford University Press 1959), page 28.

"As if the earth had roll'd/With visible motion her diurnal round" brings to mind "roll'd round in earth's diurnal course" from "A slumber did my spirit seal," which was written in the same year as the passage quoted above.

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973)
"Winter Landscape, West Cults, Aberdeen" (1940)

A dome of darkness overhead.  Dark depths below.  Between the two, skaters curving on a sheet of ice.  The poetic possibilities are obvious. (More so than, say, ice-fishing.  Although ice-fishing does have its charms.)

      The Midnight Skaters

The hop-poles stand in cones,
     The icy pond lurks under,
The pole-tops steeple to the thrones
     Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;
But not the tallest there, 'tis said,
Could fathom to this pond's black bed.

Then is not death at watch
     Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
     Earth's heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
     Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
     Use him as though you love him;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

Edmund Blunden, English Poems (1925).

Ronald George Lampitt (1906-1988), "Skating By Moonlight"

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmastide

In childhood, Christmas is a time of expectation and anticipation.  At some point -- ah, when? -- it becomes a time of reminiscence and reflection.  But I suppose that sounds a great deal like Life in general, doesn't it?

But one thing has not changed:  the lights.  Indoors, the lights on the tree, reflected in the ornaments.  Outdoors, the brightly-lit houses in the neighborhood.  The four white candles of the Swedish angel chimes.  A string of bubble lights.  Sentimentality?  Nostalgia?  Yes, of course.

          Yuletide in a Younger World

     We believed in highdays then,
          And could glimpse at night
               On Christmas Eve
Imminent oncomings of radiant revel --
          Doings of delight: --
          Now we have no such sight.

     We had eyes for phantoms then,
          And at bridge or stile
               On Christmas Eve
Clear beheld those countless ones who had crossed it
          Cross again in file: --
          Such has ceased longwhile!

     We liked divination then,
          And, as they homeward wound
               On Christmas Eve,
We could read men's dreams within them spinning
          Even as wheels spin round: --
          Now we are blinker-bound.

     We heard still small voices then,
          And, in the dim serene
               Of Christmas Eve,
Caught the far-time tones of fire-filled prophets
          Long on earth unseen. . . .
          -- Can such ever have been?

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

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

Back in October, I wrote about Thomas Hardy's humanity, honesty, and sincerity.  As fond as we moderns are of irony, we should put it aside when we read the following poem.

I take Hardy at his word.  And, with respect to the poem's last two lines, I would do exactly as Hardy says he would do.

                       The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
     "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
     By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
     They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
     To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
     In these years!  Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
     "Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
     Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
     Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

Harold Bush, "The Christmas Tree" (1933)

Hardy never condescends.  He may satirize and skewer the pretensions of those who think too well of themselves.  And, although he was acutely sensitive to criticism, both personal and literary, his humility was remarked upon by nearly everyone who met him in person.  That and his soft-spokenness.  Of course he was ambitious, but I think that in his heart of hearts he always thought of himself as a Dorset countryman.

               Christmastide

The rain-shafts splintered on me
     As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
     And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
     By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
     In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
     "A merry Christmas, friend!" --
There rose a figure by me,
     Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's, who, breaking
     Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
     Toward the Casuals' gate.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).  "The Casuals' gate" refers to a gate of the Union House in Dorchester.  J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 581.  "In Hardy's time any 'casual' (pauper or tramp) could apply to the police for a ticket, with which he would be admitted for supper, a bed, and breakfast."  Ibid.

A merry Christmas, friends!

Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)