Friday, November 29, 2013


We have previously considered the poetic possibilities of the humble swede. It is now time to turn our attention to the mangel (also known as the mangel-wurzel and the mangold).  Those who are knowledgeable about such things (I am not a member of that group) are quick to point out that a mangel is a variety of beet, whereas a swede is a variety of turnip.  Thus, in my researches into this matter, I discovered an ancient English proverbial phrase:  "He doesn't know a swede from a mangel-wurzel!"

In any event, the mangel is a noble vegetable, and it has a noble poetic history.

Stanley Spencer, "Distant View of Maidenhead, Berkshire" (1939)

The following poem by Ivor Gurney begins with Edward Thomas, turns to mangels, and then heads off on one of Gurney's wonderful excursions.

                              The Mangel-bury

It was after War, Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras --
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place -- along the hedges yet-bare-lines.
West spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.
Across the flat country the rattling of the cart sounded;
Heavy of wood, jingling of iron; as he neared me, I waited
For the chance perhaps of heaving at those great rounded
Ruddy or orange things -- and right to be rolled and hefted
By a body like mine, soldier-still, and clean from water.
Silent he assented; till the cart was drifted
High with those creatures, so right in size and matter,
We threw them with our bodies swinging; blood in my ears singing:
His was the thick-set sort of farmer, but well-built --
Perhaps long before, his blood's name ruled all:
Watched all things for his own.  If my luck had so willed
Many questions of lordship I had heard him tell -- old
Names, rumours.  But my pain to more moving called
And him to some barn business far in the fifteen acre field.

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

Of course, one wonders whether Gurney had Thomas's "Swedes" in mind, both when he was tossing mangels into the farm-cart and later when he wrote the poem.  I find the phrase "after War" (not "after the War," as one might expect) intriguing:  does Gurney have in mind "War" as a perennial human condition, rather than "the War" as a unique historical event?  But I may be reading too much into it.

Christopher Nevinson, "A Winter Landscape" (1926)

In 1932, Thomas's widow Helen visited Gurney in the asylum in which he was confined.  Her description of her initial meeting with Gurney is heart-breaking:

"We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss [Marion] Scott introduced me.  He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand.  Then I gave him the flowers, which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence.  He then said, 'You are Helen, Edward's wife and Edward is dead.'  And I said, 'Yes, let us talk of him.'

So we went into a little cell-like bedroom where the only furniture was a bed and a chair.  The window was high and barred and the walls bare and drab. He put the flowers on the bed for there was no vessel to put them in; there was nothing in the room that could in any way be used to do damage with -- no pottery or jars or pictures whose broken edge could be used as a weapon. . . . We spoke of country that he knew and which Edward knew too and he evidently identified Edward with the English countryside, especially that of Gloucestershire."

Helen Thomas, "Ivor Gurney," in Time and Again: Memoirs and Letters (edited by Myfanwy Thomas (Carcanet 1978).  The final stanza of "Adlestrop" comes immediately to mind:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

She then recounts her second visit to Gurney:

"The next time I went with Miss Scott I took with me Edward's own well-used ordnance maps of Gloucestershire where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor Gurney at once spread them out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byways and villages of which Ivor Gurney knew every step and over which Edward had also walked.  He spent that hour in revisiting his home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind's eye, with flowers and trees, stiles and hedges, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity.  He trod, in a way we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map.  It was most deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.  For he had Edward as companion in this strange perambulation and he was utterly happy, without being over-excited."


Kenneth Roberts, "Benvie, Gray and Gordie" (1988)

Gurney's encounter with the farmer is reminiscent of Edward Thomas's encounter with a farmer plowing a field in the untitled poem which begins "As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn."  The poem takes place during the War, before Thomas was sent to France.  Here is part of the poem:

                  . . . Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
                      The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said.  'When will they take it away?'
'When the war's over.' . . .

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Christopher Nevinson, "Near Leatherhead" (c. 1939)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"For 'Tis November"

It is time, dear readers, to pay our annual visit to "The Region November." This is the fourth time ("Time's winged chariot hurrying near!") the poem has appeared here, for which I beg your indulgence.  But it is my way of greeting the arrival of winter.  I have long felt that, as a matter of emotion, winter begins sometime in the latter half of November, regardless of what the calendar may say.

"The Region November" is coupled in my mind with a poem which I visit in May of each year:  Philip Larkin's "The Trees."  "Swaying, swaying, swaying" (see below) and "afresh, afresh, afresh" provide guideposts for the turnings of the year (two of them, at least).  So please bear with me.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Autumn Afternoon"

            The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

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

James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

This idea of autumn-into-winter trees "saying and saying" and "swaying, swaying, swaying" brings to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy.  I seldom think of Hardy and Stevens in connection with one another:  they seem to inhabit different worlds, Hardy's being more human and less abstract than Stevens's.  But in these two poems they circle around a similar thought. (And not simply because the word "sway" occurs in both poems.)

  The Upper Birch-Leaves

Warm yellowy-green
In the blue serene,
How they skip and sway
On this autumn day!
They cannot know
What has happened below, --
That their boughs down there
Are already quite bare,
That their own will be
When a week has passed, --
For they jig as in glee
To this very last.

But no; there lies
At times in their tune
A note that cries
What at first I fear
I did not hear:
"O we remember
At each wind's hollo --
Though life holds yet --
We go hence soon,
For 'tis November;
-- But that you follow
You may forget!"

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

Hardy has a Dorset countryman's view of things, of course.  Which, to my mind, is a good thing.  However, some might argue that he is not as "sophisticated" as Stevens.  I disagree.  As much as I love "The Region November" (and many other poems by Stevens), no poet has looked as closely at -- and as deeply into -- the World and its denizens as Hardy has.

But enough of these quibbles.  All that matters is this:  Hardy and Stevens both know what November means.  And trees do talk.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Wellbank, Rossie Priory"

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"That Ringed-in Hour Of Pines, Stars, And Dark Eminence"

This week has been clear and cold.  The night sky seems deeper, and the stars seem sharper.  That winter look.  No doubt things seem that way by dint of emotion, not by virtue of scientific fact.

Of course, a streetlight washed city sky is no true test.  I have two benchmarks for star-viewing:  a night camping along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada of California in the early 1970s, and a night on a beach on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands in the 1980s (where I saw the Southern Cross for the first time).  Skies like that have a way of putting you in your place.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1918)

Ivor Gurney was an inveterate night walker.  Hence, the stars make frequent appearances in his poetry (as does dawn, when he was often still walking).


One lucky hour in middle of my tiredness
I came under the pines of the sheer steep
And saw the stars like steady candles gleam
Above and through;  Brimscombe wrapped (past life) in sleep!
Such body weariness and ugliness
Had gone before, such tiredness to come on me --
This perfect moment had such pure clemency
That it my memory has all coloured since,
Forgetting the blackness and pain so driven hence.
And the naked uplands even from bramble free.
That ringed-in hour of pines, stars, and dark eminence.
(The thing we looked for in our fear of France.)

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

The lines "This perfect moment had such pure clemency/That it my memory has all coloured since" bring to mind similar thoughts from Derek Mahon in "Thinking of Inis Oirr in Cambridge, Mass." ("I clutch the memory still, and I/Have measured everything with it since") and Seamus Heaney in "The Peninsula" (". . . now you will uncode all landscapes/By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,/Water and ground in their extremity").

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1901)

In the following poem, Thomas Hardy also finds himself alone beneath the stars out in the countryside.  Hardy wrote his fair share of night-poems, many of which are spookily set in graveyards or on windy headlands or in empty Dorset lanes.  But this poem is rather restful and peaceful (albeit with a whisper of Mortality at the end).

       The Wanderer

There is nobody on the road
        But I,
And no beseeming abode
        I can try
For shelter, so abroad
        I must lie.

The stars feel not far up,
        And to be
The lights by which I sup
Set out in a hollow cup
        Over me.

They wag as though they were
        Panting for joy
Where they shine, above all care,
        And annoy,
And demons of despair --
        Life's alloy.

Sometimes outside the fence
        Feet swing past,
Clock-like, and then go hence,
        Till at last
There is a silence, dense,
        Deep, and vast.

A wanderer, witch-drawn
        To and fro,
To-morrow, at the dawn,
        On I go,
And where I rest anon
        Do not know!

Yet it's meet -- this bed of hay
        And roofless plight;
For there's a house of clay,
        My own, quite,
To roof me soon, all day
        And all night.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1911)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"How It Rained! . . . How It Snowed! . . . How It Shone!"

Please bear with me:  I have decided to get these swede poems out of my system.  The two poems that follow have to do with the "docking" of swedes, which consists of cutting away soil and fibers from the harvested root.  The first poem is by Thomas Hardy, and is based upon incidents from Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Evelyn Mary Dunbar (1906-1960)
"A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling"

          We Field-Women

               How it rained
When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,
And could not stand upon the hill
Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill.
The wet washed through us -- plash, plash, plash:
               How it rained!

               How it snowed
When we crossed from Flintcomb-Ash
To the Great Barn for drawing reed,
Since we could nowise chop a swede. --
Flakes in each doorway and casement-sash:
               How it snowed!

               How it shone
When we went from Flintcomb-Ash
To start at dairywork once more
In the laughing meads, with cows three-score,
And pails, and songs, and love -- too rash:
               How it shone!

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

Hardy is one of the few poets who, as a man, can successfully write a poem from the point-of-view of a woman, without doing so in a false or patronizing fashion.  (Perhaps, as a man, I am not qualified to opine on the matter.  Hence, I apologize for any presumption.)  In addition to "We Field-Women," I am thinking of, for instance, "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" (an elderly woman raking up leaves) and "The Farm-Woman's Winter" (a woman whose husband has died, leaving her alone on the farm).  And there are many others.  As I have noted before, Hardy had a great deal of empathy with, and compassion for, his fellow human beings (as individuals, not as "humanity" in the abstract).  This may account for his ability to place himself into another person's shoes.

Evelyn Mary Dunbar, "Winter Garden" (c. 1929-1937)

The scenes depicted in "We Field-Women" seem positively bucolic in comparison with the less-than-idyllic Welsh drama of the following poem by R. S. Thomas.  Hardy is often (rightly and wrongly) accused of being a pessimist.  But Thomas can make Hardy look like an innocent Pollyanna daydreaming of rural arcadias.

                    On the Farm

There was Dai Puw.  He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after the ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail.

There was Huw Puw, too.  What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave those fields,
And all the trees were deformed.

And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence:  God is love.

R. S. Thomas, The Bread of Truth (Rupert Hart-Davis 1963).

Whew!  Now, I believe that the caricature of R. S. Thomas as a curmudgeon is overdone.  That being said, I suspect that some of his Welsh parishioners may have found him to be a less-than-outgoing and less-than-warm vicar.  On the other hand, I also suspect that Thomas was truthful to what he saw.  And we must not forget that his Wales is also marked by moments of transcendent beauty.

Evelyn Mary Dunbar, "A Land Girl and the Bail Bull" (1945)

Sunday, November 17, 2013


When I was young -- and innocent of both the world of agriculture and the world of vegetables (as I still mostly am) -- I believed that a "swede" was someone who hailed from Sweden.  Eventually, my ignorance was dispelled when I came across the following poem by Edward Thomas:


They have taken the gable from the roof of clay
On the long swede pile.  They have let in the sun
To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds
Unsunned.  It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh's tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.

But dreamless long-dead Amen-hotep lies.
This is a dream of Winter, sweet as Spring.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

"Tender-gorgeous" (line 4) is a wonderful combination.  The scene reminds me of another poem by Thomas set in the same time of year, in which Winter also makes an upper-cased appearance.


Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.


David Murray, "Swedes" (1905)

I soon discovered that (1) "swede" derives from "Swedish turnip," and (2) a swede is a rutabaga.  And then things fell nicely into place:  my Minnesota-born, Swedish-descended grandmother always put rutabagas in her vegetable soup, and, strangely enough, they were my favorite part of the soup (not that the rest wasn't delicious -- it was).

Since that time, I have become a connoisseur of swede poems. Subsequently, I came upon this.

                              A Labourer

Who can tell his years, for the winds have stretched
So tight the skin on the bare racks of bone
That his face is smooth, inscrutable as stone?
And when he wades in the brown bilge of earth
Hour by hour, or stoops to pull
The reluctant swedes, who can read the look
In the colourless eyes, as his back comes straight
Like an old tree lightened of the snow's weight?
Is there love there, or hope, or any thought
For the frail form broken beneath his tread,
And the sweet pregnancy that yields his bread?

R. S. Thomas, The Stones of the Field (1946).

John Gilbert Donley, "A Field of Swedes" (c. 1930)

Later, I discovered this poem by Andrew Young.

                        The Swedes

Three that are one since time began,
Horse, cart and man,
Lurch down the lane patched with loose stones;
Swedes in the cart heaped smooth and round
Like skulls that from the ground
The man has dug without the bones
Leave me in doubt
Whether the swedes with gold shoots sprout
Or with fresh fancies bursts each old bald sconce.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

Young is a closely-observant and painstakingly accurate "nature poet." However, part of the charm of his poetry is that he often comes up with the sort of startling image that appears in the final line of the poem.  I am reminded of "The Shepherd's Hut," which is about laundry flapping in the wind on a clothes-line.  It ends with these lines about the shepherd's wife: "She little knows/That ghosts are trying on her children's clothes."  Very nice, I think.

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "The Swede Harvest"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Who Has Seen The Wind?"

In terms of reading poetry, I've barely scratched the surface.  I'd guess I've read about 1% of the poetry that I would have liked to have read by this point in my life.  But I'm not concerned.  I'm not preparing for an examination.  I'm not in a contest.  In fact, I'm reluctant to read more than one or two poems a day.  A poem deserves attention.  It also needs to sit a while.  It is not a text message.  It is not a sound bite.

Many of us have experienced sensory overload when visiting an art museum:  in time, you lose your ability to see.  I've concluded that I'm better off spending a great deal of time in front of a few paintings rather than trying to look at them all.  The same principle applies, I think, to the reading of poetry:  less is better.  But perhaps I'm simply trying to rationalize my slow pace (and my slow-wittedness).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"

One advantage of my snail's pace is that it allows me to mull things over. Other possibilities may present themselves if you let a poem percolate. Some of these possibilities may lie outside of the poem. For instance, I recently read the following poem for the first time.

             Till I Went Out

Till I went out of doors to prove
What through my window I saw move;
To see if grass was brighter yet,
And if the stones were dark and wet;

Till I went out to see a sign --
That slanted rain, so light and fine,
Had almost settled in my mind
That I at last could see the wind.

W. H. Davies, Forty New Poems (1918).

I am not going to suggest that this is the sort of revelatory poem by which one can steer the course of one's life.  But it shouldn't be passed over quickly.  Consider, for example, the final line, with its implication that this is not the first occasion on which the speaker has sought to see the wind. Some may consider this madness.  Not I.

After reading the poem, I felt that this notion of seeing the wind was something that I had encountered before.  But I couldn't put my finger on it. Then, the next morning, I remembered this.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
     The wind is passing thro'.

Who has seen the wind?
     Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
     The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

Again, this is not a life-changing poem.  But the movement from "Till I Went Out" is a pleasant one.

James McIntosh Patrick
"Rum and Eigg from Ardtoe, Acharacle, Argyllshire" (1959)

Next, Rossetti's poem prompted me to recall this untitled poem by Michael Longley.

When all the reeds are swaying in the wind
How can you tell which reeds the otters bend?

Michael Longley, Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape 1998).

I find this emergence of connections to be rewarding.  These things happen in their own easy-going fashion.  It is not a matter of study or of explication.  Each poem we read stands on its own.  Yet each poem also has a place in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of every poem we have ever read.  And there is no hurry.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day: "The Silver Thrush No More Crying Canada -- Canada For The Memory"

For all of the heartbreaking personal anguish evident in Ivor Gurney's war poetry, what moves me most deeply in the poetry is his compassion for, and his ever-enduring memory of, those who were with him.  On this Remembrance Day, the following poems by Gurney seem appropriate.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Moving Up" (c. 1916-1918)

We marched, and saw a company of Canadians
Their coats weighed eighty pounds at least, we saw them
Faces infinitely grimed in, with almost dead hands
Bent, slouching downwards to billets comfortless and dim.
Cave dwellers last of tribes they seemed, and a pity
Even from us just relieved (much as they were), left us.
Somme, what a desolation's damned land, what iniquity
Of mere being.  There of what youth that country bereft us;
Plagues of evil lay in Death's Valley we also had
Forded that up to the thighs in chill mud almost still-stood
As they had gone -- and endured day as night without sun.
Gone for five days then any sign of life glow
As the notched stumps or the gray clouds (then) we stood;
Dead past death from first hour and the needed mood
Of level pain shifting continually to and fro.
Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Stewart White ran in
My own mind; what in others?  These men who finely
Perhaps had chosen danger for reckless and fine chance
Fate had sent for suffering and dwelling obscenely
Vermin eaten, fed beastly, in vile ditches meanly.
(Backwoods or clean Quebec for defiled, ruined, man-killing France
And the silver thrush no more crying Canada -- Canada for the memory.

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

"Death's Valley" (line 9) (also referred to as "Death Valley") was the name given to a terrain feature on the Somme battlefield.  The punctuation (or lack thereof), including the lack of a closing parenthesis at the end of the last line, reflect Gurney's typescript. The poem was not published during his lifetime.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Arras" (c. 1917-1918)

                           First Time In

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things.  Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things.  And the next days' guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations --
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the white rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung -- but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.

The tenderness is touching, especially as contrasted with the harrowing circumstances.  "A Welsh colony/Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory/Soft foreign things" is very lovely and affecting.  "David of the White Rock" ("Dafydd y Garreg Wen") and "Slumber Song" ("Suo Gan") are traditional Welsh songs.  Gurney the musician and composer would likely have been beguiled by the singing.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Somme" (c. 1916-1918)

Finally, there is this sonnet, which is one of Gurney's best-known poems.

                              Strange Hells

There are strange Hells within the minds War made
Not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid
As one would have expected -- the racket and fear guns made.
One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked lower their heads --
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
'Apres la guerre fini' till Hell all had come down.
12 inch -- 6 inch and 18 pounders hammering Hell's thunders.

Where are They now on State-doles, or showing shop-patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged.  Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.

The final two lines are, of course, remarkable -- and devastating.  First comes: "Some civic routine one never learns."  On a first reading, this could possibly have a hint of wryness about it.  Possibly.  But then comes this: "The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns."  One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.  There are things that we will never come close to fathoming because we were not there, but which can still bring a tear to the eye.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Sanctuary Wood" (c. 1916-1917)

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Every Day The World Grows Noisier; I, For One, Will Have No Part In That Increasing Clamour"

I have written before in praise of idleness.  One of my favorite apostrophes to idleness appears in George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft:

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), pages 13-14.

This is an elaboration of Pascal's famous dictum:  "I have often said, that all the Misfortune of Men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their Chamber."  Blaise Pascal, Pensees (translated by Joseph Walker) (1688).

Alas, those who wish to change the world -- politicians, social engineers, media mouthpieces, and their ilk -- are unlikely to read, much less take heed of, Pascal and Gissing.  Thus, the rest of us must do our best to mitigate the Sisyphean antics and the noisy noisomeness of these busybodies by keeping our wits about us and by remaining idle and quiet.

Percy Horton, "The Road to the Fells, Ambleside" (c. 1943)

Mind you, we shouldn't confuse idleness with inactivity or lassitude, as Andrew Young points out.  One must be vigilant and attentive in order to be idle.


God, you've so much to do,
To think of, watch and listen to,
That I will let all else go by
And lending ear and eye
Help you to watch how in the combe
Winds sweep dead leaves without a broom;
And rooks in the spring-reddened trees
Restore their villages,
Nest by dark nest
Swaying at rest on the trees' frail unrest;
Or on this limestone wall,
Leaning at ease, with you recall
How once these heavy stones
Swam in the sea as shells and bones;
And hear that owl snore in a tree
Till it grows dark enough for him to see;
In fact, will learn to shirk
No idleness that I may share your work.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

A side-note: "Nest by dark nest/Swaying at rest on the trees' frail unrest" is particularly nice, I think.

Percy Horton, "Storm over Loughrigg" (c. 1943)

Indeed, idleness is an essential element of a well-lived life, as pointed out by Kathleen Raine in the following untitled poem.

Your gift of life was idleness,
As you would set day's task aside
To marvel at an opening bud,
Quivering leaf, or spider's veil
On dewy grass in morning spread.
These were your wandering thoughts, that strayed
Across the ever-changing mind
Of airy sky and travelling cloud,
The harebell and the heather hill,
World without end, where you could lose
Memory, identity and name
And all that you beheld, became,
Insect wing and net of stars
Or silver-glistering wind-borne seed
For ever drifting free from time.
What has unbounded life to do
With body's grave and body's womb,
Span of life and little room?

Kathleen Raine, The Oval Portrait (1977).

Percy Horton, "A Corner of Ambleside" (c. 1943)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"I Tread On Many Autumns Here"

Over the weekend we had a strong wind-storm, and the trees have now lost most of their leaves.  I'm not inclined to hear voices when I am out and about in the World.  Today, however, as I walked beneath bare branches, through piles of fallen leaves, I heard the trees say something along these lines:  That's it.  We're done.  Ah, look at the waste around us!  It's sad, isn't it?

Have no fear.  I'm not going mad.  I did not reply.

William Rothenstein (1872-1945), "St Martin's Summer"

The images of leaves underfoot in C. H. Sisson's "Leaves," which appeared here recently, reminded me of the following poem by Andrew Young.

      Walking in Beech Leaves

I tread on many autumns here
     But with no pride,
For at the leaf-fall of each year
     I also died.

This is last autumn, crisp and brown,
     That my knees feel;
But through how many years sinks down
     My sullen heel.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

The poems by Sisson and Young in turn bring to mind the second stanza of Robert Frost's "In Hardwood Groves," which I have posted here before:

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

Gilbert Spencer, "Burdens Farm with Melbury Beacon" (1943)

Well, one way or another, leaves -- and we -- reach the same destination. The World provides us with any number of symbols and metaphors and allegories for our journey towards this destination.  If forced to choose among the options, I would opt for leafhood.

        June Leaves and Autumn

Lush summer lit the trees to green;
     But in the ditch hard by
Lay dying boughs some hand unseen
Had lopped when first with festal mien
     They matched their mates on high.
It seemed a melancholy fate
That leaves but brought to birth so late
     Should rust there, red and numb,
In quickened fall, while all their race
Still joyed aloft in pride of place
     With store of days to come.

At autumn-end I fared that way,
     And traced those boughs fore-hewn
Whose leaves, awaiting their decay
In slowly browning shades, still lay
     Where they had lain in June
And now, no less embrowned and curst
Than if they had fallen with the first,
     Nor known a morning more,
Lay there alongside, dun and sere,
Those that at my last wandering here
     Had length of days in store.

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

James Bateman, "Lulington Church" (1939)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Lost World, Part Three: "Grave Sweet Ancestral Faces"

The following poem by Kathleen Raine has its source in a painting by Samuel Palmer.  I'm guessing that the painting she has in mind is the one that appears immediately below.  However, any number of paintings and engravings by Palmer (a few of which have appeared here previously) evoke a similar atmosphere.  My sense of Palmer is that he knew he was witnessing the passing of a world, and that he wished to preserve what he could of it before it vanished.

Samuel Palmer
"Coming from Evening Church" (1830)

          Returning from Church

That country spire -- Samuel Palmer knew
What world they entered, who,
Kneeling in English village pew,
Were near those angels whose golden effigies looked down
From Gothic vault or hammer-beam.
Grave sweet ancestral faces
Beheld, Sunday by Sunday, a holy place
Few find, who, pausing now
In empty churches, cannot guess
At those deep simple states of grace.

Kathleen Raine, The Oracle in the Heart (1980).

The poem brings to mind Philip Larkin's "Church Going" and J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country, both of which have a similar elegiac feeling.

Robin Tanner, "Harvest Festival" (1930)

The following poem by Derek Mahon goes well, I think, with Raine's poem.


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  (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).

Nowadays, the word "nostalgia" has acquired a vaguely pejorative sense. As has the word "sentimental," with which it is often paired.  At least that's my perception.  But perhaps I'm being defensive, since I do not find anything inherently wrong with nostalgia or sentimentality, as long as we realize that the past was not "better" in all respects than the world in which we presently live.  I'm pleased that we now have electricity and plumbing. Beyond that . . .

Of course, there are those who choose to believe that we have "advanced" beyond those lost times and that human history is an unbroken narrative of "progress," as measured in scientific and political terms.  How quaint and beguiling a notion.

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Basil Blackwell 1969).

Samuel Palmer, "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826)

            New World

New world, I see you dazzle,
Like the sun on a door-knocker
In a straight street inhabited
By people I do not know.

C. H. Sisson, Exactions (Carcanet 1980).

Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)