Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Reality Is An Activity Of The Most August Imagination"

At least one critic has suggested that the word "august" in the title of the following poem is a pun, the primary sense being "majestic, stately, sublime" (OED).  I'm not so sure about that.  Wallace Stevens was not without humor, but he doesn't seem to be the type who would go in for puns.  But who knows?

In any case, it is an appropriate poem for the final day of August, when the slow turn to autumn has become evident:  that cast of yellow light and those shadows, that blue sky that has acquired a further degree of depth, that breeze with an ever-so-slight chill just beneath the surface.

Samuel Bough (1822-1878), "The Hayfield, Coming Storm"

   Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination

Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night,
We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late.

It was not a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna
Or Venice, motionless, gathering time and dust.

There was a crush of strength in a grinding going round,
Under the front of the westward evening star,

The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,
As things emerged and moved and were dissolved,

Either in distance, change or nothingness,
The visible transformations of summer night,

An argentine abstraction approaching form
And suddenly denying itself away.

There was an insolid billowing of the solid.
Night's moonlight lake was neither water nor air.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

The whole of Stevens's philosophy (poetic and otherwise) is, I think, summed up in that single sentence:  "Reality is an activity of the most august imagination."  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is an articulation of the same thought.  The following poem, which appears in a two-poem sequence titled "Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It," is a further iteration of the idea.

     The World Is Larger in Summer

He left half a shoulder and half a head
To recognize him in after time.

These marbles lay weathering in the grass
When the summer was over, when the change

Of summer and of the sun, the life
Of summer and of the sun, were gone.

He had said that everything possessed
The power to transform itself, or else,

And what meant more, to be transformed.
He discovered the colors of the moon

In a single spruce, when, suddenly,
The tree stood dazzling in the air

And blue broke on him from the sun,
A bullioned blue, a blue abulge,

Like daylight, with time's bellishings,
And sensuous summer stood full-height.

The master of the spruce, himself,
Became transformed.  But his mastery

Left only the fragments found in the grass,
From his project, as finally magnified.

Wallace Stevens, "The Rock" (1954), Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

The seasons are paramount in Stevens's poetry.  The spruce of Stevens's summer is vastly different than his spruce of winter in "The Snow Man": "The spruces rough in the distant glitter/Of the January sun."

Yes, of course:  "The world is what you make of it."  "Reality is an activity of the most august imagination."  While we are here.  As the seasons unfold around us.

Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"The Trees Around Are For You, The Whole Of The Wideness Of Night Is For You"

Mary Coleridge's "In Dispraise of the Moon," which appeared in my previous post, describes the moon as follows:

She wakes her dim, uncoloured, voiceless hosts,
Ghost of the Sun, herself the sun of ghosts.

The second line put me in mind of one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, a poem which, incidentally, is set in August ("the most peaceful month").  In it, Stevens takes a more charitable view of the moon and its ghosts.

Samuel Palmer, "The Bellman" (1879)

       A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

I have previously ventured a guess as to what the poem may be "about" or what it "means."  On the one hand, it is perhaps Stevens's sublimest, most moving articulation of his belief that what makes us human is our imagination (living in -- and transforming -- a real world of moons and rabbits and cats).  On the other hand, it may simply be a tale about a rabbit that was digging up and eating the bulbs in Stevens's flower garden.  Either version is fine by me.

Samuel Palmer
"Coming from Evening Church" (1830)


There are great things doing
In the world,
Little rabbit.
There is a damsel,
Sweeter than the sound of the willow,
Dearer than shallow water
Flowing over pebbles.
Of a Sunday,
She wears a long coat,
With twelve buttons on it.
Tell that to your mother.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

For those interested in another view of rabbits, I recommend "The Rabbit's Advice" by Elizabeth Jennings, which I have posted previously.

Samuel Palmer, "The Lonely Tower" (1879)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"In Dispraise Of The Moon"

One usually expects poets to praise the moon, to compose paeans to its mystery and its magic, and to use it to evoke gods and goddesses and spirits.  Thus, the following poems may come as a surprise.  On the other hand, by raising vehement objections to the moon, perhaps the poets have implicitly acknowledged its hold on us.

In any case, how we see the moon depends on our mood, doesn't it?  For instance, who, at some point in their life, hasn't found a sunny, bright blue day to be oppressive and depressing?  We fashion our own gods and goddesses and spirits out of what we are given to work with, don't we?

Frank Ormond (1897-1988), "Moonrise, Stanford Dingley"

             In Dispraise of the Moon

I would not be the Moon, the sickly thing,
To summon owls and bats upon the wing;
For when the noble Sun is gone away,
She turns his night into a pallid day.

She hath no air, no radiance of her own,
That world unmusical of earth and stone.
She wakes her dim, uncoloured, voiceless hosts,
Ghost of the Sun, herself the sun of ghosts.

The mortal eyes that gaze too long on her
Of Reason's piercing ray defrauded are.
Light in itself doth feed the living brain;
That light, reflected, but makes darkness plain.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (edited by Theresa Whistler) (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

I particularly like "herself the sun of ghosts" (line 8) and "That light, reflected, but makes darkness plain" (line 12).  Both phrases are a nice combination of descriptive accuracy and emotional resonance.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, "View of Heath Street by Night" (1882)

Given Thomas Hardy's productivity, one could compile a substantial anthology of poems by him that feature the moon and moonlight.  As one might expect, the moon and a graveyard (with the occasional conversing ghost) is a not uncommon setting.  However, in the following poem, gravestones make only a cameo appearance.

            Shut Out That Moon

Close up the casement, draw the blind,
     Shut out that stealing moon,
She wears too much the guise she wore
     Before our lutes were strewn
With years-deep dust, and names we read
     On a white stone were hewn.

Step not forth on the dew-dashed lawn
     To view the Lady's Chair,
Immense Orion's glittering form,
     The Less and Greater Bear:
Stay in; to such sights we were drawn
     When faded ones were fair.

Brush not the bough for midnight scents
     That come forth lingeringly,
And wake the same sweet sentiments
     They breathed to you and me
When living seemed a laugh, and love
     All it was said to be.

Within the common lamp-lit room
     Prison my eyes and thought;
Let dingy details crudely loom,
     Mechanic speech be wrought:
Too fragrant was Life's early bloom,
     Too tart the fruit it brought!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks, and Other Verses (1909).

Joseph Wright of Derby
"Moonlight with a Lighthouse, Coast of Tuscany" (1789)

Who better than Philip Larkin to bring this line of rumination to a fitting close?

                      Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock:  wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate --
Lozenge of love!  Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory!  Immensements!  No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

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

Yes, I know:  Whew!  For anyone who is not fond of Larkin, this sort of thing confirms their position.  For those of us who are fond of Larkin, this sort of thing likewise confirms our position.  I confess that I am not fond of the first line, but how can you not love a poet who takes his title from the first line of an Elizabethan sonnet by Philip Sidney ("With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!") and then brings us into Mr Bleaney's barren, moon-washed room in the late 20th century?

Augustus Leopold Egg, "Past and Present" (1858)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Perspective, Part Eleven: "His Heart Is Tranquil, From It Springs A Dreamy Watchfulness Of Tranquil Things"

Perhaps I am deluding myself -- or whistling past the graveyard -- but I believe that, apart from aching joints, growing old has its compensations. For instance, humanity's fixations and follies (my own included) can be viewed from a somewhat-Olympian distance.

Mind you, I don't claim to be of a calm, disinterested, and equable temperament:  I am often moved to sorrow or dismay or anger at the latest display of humanity's diabolical capabilities and inanity.  Our perverse inventiveness is, alas, endless.  But the existence of those diabolical capabilities and of that inanity no longer comes as a surprise.  Thus it is, thus it was, and thus it always will be.

There's no great mystery here, is there?  One is best advised to attend to one's own soul.  A place to start:

                 . . . 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).

Harold Hussey, "Dove House, Hurley" (1940)

         From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (edited by Theresa Whistler) (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

Harold Hussey, "Tithe Barn near Hurley" (1940)

The following passage is apt, I think.

"One of the advantages of old age is liberty.  Pisistratus asked Solon, who opposed him, on what he grounded his liberty?  Upon my old-age, he replied, which has no longer any thing to fear.

The latter season sets us free from the tyranny of opinion.  When we are young, we think only of living in the conceit of others.  We must establish our reputations, and give ourselves an honorable place in the imagination of others; and we must even be happy in their idea.  Such happiness is not real; -- it is not ourselves we consult, but others.

In a later period, we return to ourselves, and this return has its sweets.  We begin to consult and to confide in ourselves.  We escape from fortune and from illusion.  Men have lost their prerogative of deceiving us.  We have learnt to know them, and to know ourselves; to profit from our own faults, which instruct us as much as those of others.  We begin to see our error, in having set so high a value upon men."

Marchioness de Lambert (Anne-Therese de Marguenat de Courcelles), Essays on Friendship and Old-Age (translated by Eliza Ball Hayley) (1780), pages 128-130.  I owe my awareness of this passage to Giacomo Leopardi, who quotes from it in Zibaldone (page 633; February 9, 1821).

Harold Hussey, "The Post Office, Hurley" (1940)

But I wouldn't wish to suggest that this growing old business is always a bed of roses.  A poem by Norman MacCaig provides a fitting counterpoint and caution.

     In an Edinburgh Pub

An old fellow, hunched over a half pint
I hope he's remembering.
I hope he's not thinking.

Which comes first?

Memory, as always,
Lazarus of the past --

who comes sad or joyful,
but always carrying with him
a whiff of grave clothes.

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

Harold Hussey, "The Thames near Hurley" (1940)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Perspective, Part Ten: "O Little Waking Hour Of Life Out Of Sleep!"

Cosmic facts and theories leave me cold.  My interest is not piqued when I hear a scientist proclaim in wonder that some heavenly body in the universe is x billion light years away from Earth or that our solar system constitutes x-trillionth of the total matter in the universe and that each of us in turn constitutes x-quadrillionth of the total matter in the solar system. To borrow from Walker Percy, I believe that our time is better spent figuring out how to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

Still, I understand the allure of cosmic immensity.  I have fond memories of sitting in a dark planetarium on a school trip, listening to the narrator intone about the grandeur and the mystery of the universe as the constellations spun through their seasons overhead.  And more than once I have pondered the fact that the starlight reaching our eyes tonight began its journey here hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Which means, of course, that the starlight beginning its journey tonight will arrive here long after we have turned to dust.  I have not yet decided whether these facts are edifying or frightening.  I suppose they could be both.

Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

As a young man, Giacomo Leopardi was wont to take a Romantic view of our cosmic situation.  "His amusement was to count the stars as he walked."  Zibaldone, page 280 (October 16, 1820).  Or this: "A house hanging in the air suspended by ropes from a star."  Zibaldone, page 256 (October 1, 1820).  He wrote the following poem in 1819, when he was 21. (Some perspective: Keats turned 24 in that year.)

                       The Infinite

This lonely hill was always dear to me,
And this hedgerow, that hides so large a part
Of the far sky-line from my view.  Sitting and gazing,
I fashion in my mind what lie beyond --
Unearthly silences, and endless space,
And very deepest quiet; then for a while
The heart is not afraid.  And when I hear
The wind come blustering among the trees
I set that voice against this infinite silence:
And then I call to mind Eternity,
The ages that are dead, and the living present
And all the noise of it.  And thus it is
In that immensity my thought is drowned:
And sweet to me the foundering in that sea.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by John Heath-Stubbs), in Giacomo Leopardi, Selected Prose and Poetry (edited and translated by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs) (1966).

Algernon Newton, "The Regent's Park Canal, Paddington" (1930)

For comparison, here is another translation:


This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
But sitting here and gazing, I can see
beyond, in my mind's eye, unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear.  And when I hear
the wind stir in these branches, I begin
comparing that endless stillness with this noise:
and the eternal comes to mind,
and the dead seasons, and the present
living one, and how it sounds.
So my mind sinks in this immensity:
and foundering is sweet in such a sea.

Giacomo Leopardi, Canti (translated by Jonathan Galassi) (Farrar Straus Giroux 2010).

The different approaches to a phrase in lines 7 and 8 of the original ("ove per poco/Il cor non si spaura") are puzzling to this non-Italian speaker. Heath-Stubbs gives us: "then for a while/The heart is not afraid." Galassi gives us:  "till what I feel/is almost fear."  Frederick Townsend (in his 1887 translation) gives us:  "and for a moment I am calm."  The choice between "not afraid" and "almost fear" and "calm" leaves me perplexed.  I would opt for "calm" solely for emotional reasons (and with absolutely no linguistic authority), but what do I know?

Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)

Here is another way to look at cosmic immensity:  less Romantic perhaps, but dreamy and resigned (with a melancholy sigh) in a lovely 1890s fashion.


O little waking hour of life out of sleep!
When I consider the many million years
I was not yet, and the many million years
I shall not be, it is easy to think of the sleep
I shall sleep for the second time without hopes or fears.
Surely my sleep for the million years was deep?
I remember no dreams from the million years, and it seems
I may sleep for as many million years without dreams.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Two: "Humanly Alive"

In a recent post, I used C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ionic" to raise the question whether we live in a disenchanted world.  I am not suggesting that, like Yeats, we go searching for fairies in the gloaming.  But it is worthwhile to consider how much the deification of Progress and Science has cost us in terms of human truth.

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 77.

Yes, I realize there is no turning back.  And I also realize that the soft golden light of Classical Greece is itself a myth.  For instance, we know from Herodotus that, when the Persian heralds sent by Darius asked the Athenians and the Spartans for a tribute of earth and water (signifying obeisance), the Athenians threw the herald into a barathrum ("pit of punishment") and the Spartans threw theirs into a well.  The heralds were told (a paraphrase):  "There's plenty of earth and water down there." Herodotus, The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 133.  Thus, I harbor no illusions.  (Well, perhaps a few.)  But we have lost something.

Charles Mahoney (1903-1968)
"Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" (c. 1936)

                    Echoes of Hellas

O choir of Tempe mute these many years,
O fountain lutes of lyric Hippocrene,
On whose polluted brink no Muse is seen.
No more, between the gleaming vales, one hears

Apollo's footfall or the sobbing tears
Of Daphne budding finger-tips of green.
No nymphs are bathing with their huntress Queen
In the warm shallows of the mountain meres,

Great Pan is dead:  he perished long ago:
His reedy pipes these uplands never heard.
What trembling sounds from yonder coppice come?

Some ravished queen, who tells the dale her woe?
Nay, since the maids Pierian here are dumb,
The nightingale is nothing but a bird.

John Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), Collected Poems (1903).

A note:  I have previously posted John Leicester Warren's poem "The Knight in the Wood," which I highly recommend.

Charles Mahoney, "The Artist's Hand"


The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches;
The kettle yearns for the mountain,
The soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On a desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing 'Abide With Me'.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

Charles Mahoney, "The Garden" (1950)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Proper Place, Part Four: "The Whole Of You Has Been Transformed Into Feeling"

I am easily pleased.  For instance, I am always delighted when, having read something that gave me pause, I thereafter stumble upon something else in the same vein.  A couple of weeks ago, I read this:

                       In the Same Space

The setting of houses, cafes, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end:

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

Charles Holmes, "A Warehouse" (1921)

Last week I was browsing through the just-published English translation of Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone, and I came across this:

"Often changing my place of abode, where I stayed for longer or shorter periods, either months or years, I saw that I was never content, I never felt centered, I never settled into any place, however excellent it was, until I had memories that I could attach to that certain place, to the rooms in which I lived, to the streets, to the houses that I visited.  Such memories consisted of nothing other than being able to say:  here I was a certain time ago; here, a certain number of months ago, I did, I saw, I heard, that certain thing; a thing which would otherwise have been of no importance at all.

But the recollection, the possibility of my recalling it, made it important and sweet to me.  And it is clear that only as time passed could I have this ability and abundance of recollections connected with places where I lived, and over time it would never fail me.  Therefore I was always sad in any place for the first months, and as time passed I found myself increasingly content and affectionate toward whatever place.  Through recollection, it became almost like my place of birth."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (July 23, 1827; Florence) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1,911.

A side-note:  up until last month, only fragments of Zibaldone (which is usually translated as "hodge-podge" or "hotch-potch") had been translated into English.  Now, as a result of the efforts of the Leopardi Centre of the University of Birmingham, all 4,526 pages of Leopardi's journal are available in English.  Although Leopardi is not everyone's cup of tea (a hint: Schopenhauer greatly admired him), I highly recommend Zibaldone.

Charles Holmes, "The Yellow Wall, Blackburn" (1932)

                            Strange Service

Little did I dream, England, that you bore me
Under the Cotswold hills beside the water meadows,
To do you dreadful service, here, beyond your borders
And your enfolding seas.

I was a dreamer ever, and bound to your dear service,
Meditating deep, I thought on your secret beauty,
As through a child's face one may see the clear spirit
Miraculously shining.

Your hills not only hills, but friends of mine and kindly,
Your tiny knolls and orchards hidden beside the river
Muddy and strongly-flowing, with shy and tiny streamlets
Safe in its bosom.

Now these are memories only, and your skies and rushy sky-pools
Fragile mirrors easily broken by moving airs . . .
In my deep heart for ever goes on your daily being,
And uses consecrate.

Think on me too, O Mother, who wrest my soul to serve you
In strange and fearful ways beyond your encircling waters;
None but you can know my heart, its tears and sacrifice;
None, but you, repay.

Ivor Gurney, Severn & Somme (1917).

Charles Holmes, "Bude Canal" (1915)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

How To Win Friends And Influence People. Or Not.

This post is not misanthropic.  Really.  Rather, it is about sociability and conviviality.

Let me be clear:  sociability and conviviality are wonderful qualities.  Who wouldn't wish to be sociable and convivial?  But there is a mistaken tendency to equate an absence of those qualities with misanthropy.  Think of the hail-fellow-well-mets and bon vivants that you have crossed paths with in your life.  Were they, without exception, lovers of humanity?  Or, think of a politician.  Any politician, without exception.  I rest my case.

Some of you may be appalled by the following poems.  But please bear in mind:  they have nothing whatsoever to do with misanthropy.  Trust me.

Richard Eurich, "The Window"

               As Much As You Can

Even if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton University Press 1975).

E. M. Forster met Cavafy while working for the Red Cross in Alexandria during the First World War, and they became friends.  Forster was instrumental in introducing Cavafy's poetry to the English-speaking world. Of Cavafy, he wrote:

"He has the strength (and of course the limitations) of the recluse, who, though not afraid of the world, always stands at a slight angle to it, and, in conversation, he has sometimes devoted a sentence to this subject.  Which is better -- the world or seclusion?  Cavafy, who has tried both, can't say. But so much is certain -- either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life."

E. M. Forster, "The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy," Pharos and Pharillon (Hogarth Press 1923), pages 96-97.

William Adeney (1878-1966), "The Window"


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff --
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death --
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press 1955).

A confession:  many decades ago, "Wants" was the poem that made me shake my head in wonder and delight, smile, and say to myself:  "This is the poet I have been waiting for."

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window"

          Wishes of an Elderly Man
Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914

I wish I loved the Human Race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I'm introduced to one
I wish I thought What Jolly Fun!

Walter Alexander Raleigh, Laughter from a Cloud (1923).

Charles Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Filling In The Blanks

Over the past month or so, I have been running into poetic epitaphs by happenstance.  In a recent post, I quoted Edward Thomas:  "all poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  I agree.  But I also think that an argument can be made that all poetry is an elegy.

Hence (it now occurs to me):  "First known when lost."  (Again, courtesy of Edward Thomas.)  As William Allingham writes:  "Everything passes and vanishes;/Everything leaves its trace."  A truism, yes.  But true.

Elegies need not be sorrowful or mournful.  They are simply another form of love-poetry.

Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

                       In the Month of Athyr

I can just read the inscription on this ancient stone.
"Lo[r]d Jesus Christ."  I make out a "So[u]l."
"In the mon[th] of Athyr"  "Lefkio[s] went to sleep."
Where his age is mentioned -- "lived to the age of" --
the Kappa Zeta shows that he went to sleep a young man.
In the corroded part I see "Hi[m] . . . Alexandrian."
Then there are three badly mutilated lines --
though I can pick out a few words, like "our tea[r]s," "grief,"
then "tears" again, and "sorrow to [us] his [f]riends."
I think Lefkios must have been greatly loved.
In the month of Athyr Lefkios went to sleep.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

The brackets and ellipses appear in the original.  Athyr (also known as "Hathor") was an ancient Egyptian goddess.  "The month of Athyr/Hathor" corresponds to the period from November 10 through December 9 in our modern calendar.  "Kappa" (line 5) is "twenty" in Greek; "Zeta" is "seven."

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

The following poem has appeared here before.  However, because it goes so well with Cavafy's poem, it is worth revisiting.

                    A Form of Epitaph

Name in block letters     None that signified
Purpose of visit     Barely ascertained
Reasons for persevering     Hope -- or pride
Status before admission here     Regained
Previous experience     Nil, or records lost
Requirements     Few in fact, not all unmet
Knowledge accumulated     At a cost
Plans     Vague     Sworn declaration     Not in debt

Evidence of departure     Orthodox
Country of origin     Stateless then, as now
Securities where held     In one wood box
Address for future reference     Below

Is further time desired?     Not the clock's
Was permit of return petitioned?     No

Laurence Whistler, Audible Silence (1961).

The novelty and humor of the fill-in-the-blanks structure used by Whistler tends to mask the fact that the poem is a well-wrought sonnet.

Robin Tanner, "Wren and Primroses" (1935)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"Absence Ending"

Yesterday the rain returned after a 35-day absence.  We keep track of such things in this part of the world.  Yet, as much as we complain about our dampness, the complaining is good-natured.  As I have noted before, after living here awhile, you begin to miss the drizzle and the mist when the sun makes an extended appearance.

John Pearce, "Blackberries in August, Muswell Hill" (1980)

     Absence Ending

Simple words suit it best --
This first day's rain,
Cool, gentle, soaking,
And the awaited fresh
Smell of it in the dust,
The long drought broken;

So simple accepting fits
Absence ending,
The first day's waking
To the wide smell of the air,
The slow drink to the roots,
And the long drought breaking.

Joan Barton, A House Under Old Sarum: New and Selected Poems (1981).

I presume that books have been written about the various moss species found in this clime.  They never vanish -- they only pause -- no matter how long the sun stays.  Now and then, one encounters a car that sports a green sheen:  you have to keep things moving, and out of the shade, or they will be swallowed.  I have long wished to visit Kokedera (the Moss Temple) in Kyoto, where more than a hundred varieties may be found.  But I imagine that, at this moment, I am surrounded by nearly that many.

Noel Spencer (1900-1986)
"Cloth Hall Mills, Dewsbury"

                    The Wet Summer

They were glad to come each evening in early summer
With the other lovers,
To sit under the wet chestnuts
High on this western hill where the city ends,
And the leaves cut out the sky
With their five dark fingers.

Under the dripping chestnuts or the drenched may
They sat with their fellows,
Quiet in the quiet rain,
Steadfast, with clasped hands.
Hair is not less fine, eyes grow no dimmer
In the dusk, and the rain's a private house
To those who have no other.

The lamps march down the hill past the shut-up houses,
And the wet boughs
Scrawl on those grave facades their erratic shadows,
The dusk falls equally on shabby stucco
And shabby lovers;
Constant without hope, dazed in happy pain,
They sit watching the other lovers pass
Between the heavy trees and the burdened grass.

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (1972).

H. C. Bryer (1900-1986)
"79 1-2 High Street, Southampton, with Norman Chimney" (1950)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Enchanted Or Disenchanted?

Do we live in a disenchanted World, a World without enchantment?  When I consider the current predominance of scientific "explanations"of human nature and of utopian political agendas, I tend to think "yes."  But science and politics are always optional for each of us, aren't they?  Who needs them?

J. M. W. Turner, "Malmesbury Abbey" (1791)


That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

Cavafy has a knack for artfully merging the modern and ancient worlds, both in individual poems and in his poetry as a whole.  He does it in a very quiet fashion.  After reading a series of poems by him, you begin to notice that you have one foot in the present and the other foot in the distant past. You find yourself in a land where you have never walked, but one which is somehow familiar and comforting.  That land may be Ionia, or it may be Alexandria, real and imagined.

Some may think that writing poems about Hellenic gods in "modern" times is a species of "escapism."  I think not.  On the other hand, I believe that utopian political agendas and scientific "explanations" of human nature are perfect examples of escapism.  We mustn't forget:  unlike science and politics, Hellenic gods are humanly truthful.

J. M. W. Turner, "Malmesbury Abbey from the South-East" (1791)


Because we have broken their statues,
Because we have turned them out of their temples,
They have not died, the gods, for that, at all.
O land of Ionia, you, they love you still,
And you they still remember in their souls.
When an August morning dawns over you
Through your atmosphere passes an ardour from their life;
And sometimes an aerial youthful form,
Indefinite, with swift transition,
Passes upon your hills.

John Mavrogordato (translator), The Poems of C. P. Cavafy (The Hogarth Press 1951).

J. M. W. Turner, "Malmesbury Abbey from the North-West" (1791)

                       Song of Ionia

Because we smashed their statues all to pieces,
because we chased them from their temples --
this hardly means the gods have died.
O land of Ionia, they love you still,
it's you whom their souls remember still.
And as an August morning's light breaks over you
your atmosphere grows vivid with their living.
And occasionally an ethereal ephebe's form,
indeterminate, stepping swiftly,
makes its way along your crested hills.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn) (Alfred A. Knopf 2009).

J. M. W. Turner, "The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium" (c. 1834)