Sunday, December 29, 2013

"When Have We Not Preferred Some Going Round To Going Straight To Where We Are?"

Here are the final two lines of a sonnet:

When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

Reading the lines in isolation, one might think that they were written by Robert Frost or Edward Thomas.  (Although I admit that, given my fondness for Frost and Thomas, I perhaps tend to hear their sound too readily.)  In fact, the lines were written by W. H. Auden.

In the year of his death, Auden wrote "A Thanksgiving," which acknowledges his debts to his poetic and philosophic mentors.  These are the first two stanzas:

     When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
     people seemed rather profane.

     Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
     Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

W. H. Auden, Thank You, Fog (1974).  The italics are in the original.

Oliver Hall (1869-1957), "Welsh Mountains"

One of the things that Auden may have learned from Frost and Thomas is their penchant for heading off in a certain direction in a poem and then either second-guessing or reversing their course, with the second-guessing or reversal taking place at the end of the poem:  just when we think the matter has been settled, we are left scratching our heads.  This characteristic is perfectly articulated by Philip Larkin in his description (oft-quoted here) of Thomas's poetry:  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  The description applies equally well to Frost's poetry, I think.  In this connection, consider the following poem by Auden.

                            Our Bias

The hour-glass whispers to the lion's roar,
The clock-towers tell the gardens day and night
How many errors Time has patience for,
How wrong they are in being always right.

Yet Time, however loud its chimes or deep,
However fast its falling torrent flows,
Has never put one lion off his leap
Nor shaken the assurance of a rose.

For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness;

And Time with us was always popular.
When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940).

In our contemporary culture, the word "bias" has taken on a predominantly negative connotation; i.e., it  has been infected with political content (hasn't nearly everything?), and is usually equated with "prejudice" or "bigotry."  But its original sense is "an inclination, leaning, tendency, bent; a preponderating disposition or propensity; predisposition towards."  OED.

Oliver Hall, "Spring" (c. 1927)

Auden also mentions Robert Graves in "A Thanksgiving."  The following poem by Graves perhaps provides a contrast to Auden's view of nature as assured and unswerving.

          Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has -- who knows so well as I? --
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves, Poems 1926-1930 (1931).

However, perhaps Graves and Auden are not so far apart after all:  the butterfly's "honest idiocy of flight" -- "his flying-crooked gift" -- is part of its unselfconscious essence.  It is no different than Auden's lion and rose.  It is we humans who add layers of complication -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course:  thus, for instance, to "choose words according to their sound" is a lovely and wonderful gift.

Oliver Hall, "Penrhyn Quarries" (1938)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Perspective, Part Twelve: Distance

Today, I've had two poems circling around each other.  I've been doing my best not to pin them down.  I have no desire to concoct an "explanation" for why they have appeared beside one another.  However, at one point a single word floated up:  distance.  And then I told myself to stop thinking.

Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892-1957), "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"

          Tinker's Wife

I saw her amid the dunghill debris
Looking for things
Such as an old pair of shoes or gaiters.
She was a young woman,
A tinker's wife.
Her face had streaks of care
Like wires across it,
But she was supple
As a young goat
On a windy hill.

She searched on the dunghill debris,
Tripping gingerly
Over tin canisters
And sharp-broken
Dinner plates.

Patrick Kavanagh, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936).

Anne Isabella Brooke, "Wharfedale from above Bolton Abbey" (1954)

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryokan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 366.

I have no idea what distance has to do with any of this.  And I don't want to seem coy or pretentious by bringing it up.  I'm not harboring any secrets. I'm merely reporting what happened.

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas, Part Eight: "A Merry Christmas, Friend!"

A Thomas Hardy ghost story:

"He saw a ghost in Stinsford Churchyard on Christmas Eve, and his sister Kate says it must have been their grandfather upon whose grave T. H. had just placed a sprig of holly -- the first time he had ever done so.  The ghost said:  'A green Christmas' -- T. H. replied 'I like a green Christmas.'  Then the ghost went into the church, and, being full of curiosity, T. followed, to see who this strange man in 18th century dress might be -- and found -- no-one.  That is quite true -- a real Christmas ghost story."

Florence Hardy, letter to Sydney Cockerell, in Michael Millgate (editor), Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy (Oxford University Press 1996).

How like Hardy!  Rather than being frightened out of his wits, he matter-of-factly converses with the spirit as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, blithely responding:  "I like a green Christmas."  Wonderful.  Just like one of his poems.

Harry Bush (1883-1957), "The Christmas Tree" (1933)

The fact that Hardy's ghost conversation took place on Christmas Eve fits well with his Christmas poems, which often have a foggy, gloomy setting, and which are usually marked by the presence of wraiths or wraith-like humans.  This is true of the following two poems, and yet the poems have an oddly cheerful feeling to them -- proving that Hardy is no Scrooge.

     A Nightmare, and the Next Thing

On this decline of Christmas Day
The empty street is fogged and blurred:
The house-fronts all seem backwise turned
As if the outer world were spurned:
Voices and songs within are heard,
Whence red rays gleam when fires are stirred,
Upon this nightmare Christmas Day.

The lamps, just lit, begin to outloom
Like dandelion-globes in the gloom;
The stonework, shop-signs, doors, look bald;
Curious crude details seem installed,
And show themselves in their degrees
As they were personalities
Never discerned when the street was bustling
With vehicles, and farmers hustling.

Three clammy casuals wend their way
To the Union House.  I hear one say:
"Jimmy, this is a treat!  Hay-hay!"

Six laughing mouths, six rows of teeth,
Six radiant pairs of eyes, beneath
Six yellow hats, looking out at the back
Of a waggonette on its slowed-down track
Up the steep street to some gay dance,
Suddenly interrupt my glance.

They do not see a gray nightmare
Astride the day, or anywhere.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).  A "casual" was either an occasional laborer with no fixed employment or someone who was in need of temporary charitable relief.  The "Union House" was the workhouse in Dorchester, Dorset.

The poem, with its empty, foggy street and its lamps "like dandelion-globes in the gloom" (a lovely description), has a Dickensian "nightmare" feel to it.   But Hardy never states exactly what the "nightmare" is.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

The following poem is a variation on the same theme.


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, Ibid.  The "Casuals' gate" was one of the entryways to the Union House mentioned above.

Which in turn leads me to say to all of you whose visits here throughout the year are much-appreciated:  "A merry Christmas, friend!"

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "Christmas" (1929)

Friday, December 20, 2013


As I have noted here before, I do my best to keep the news of the world out of my life.  However, by some sort of media osmosis, reports of, say, a president being caught in an oft-repeated bald-faced lie eventually seep into my consciousness.  Likewise, news of the latest social engineering scheme gone awry or of the most recent instance of governmental ineptitude, dissembling, and/or cupidity sooner or later washes ashore, like a sodden corpse.

But these are the usual run-of-the-mill occurrences out of time immemorial, aren't they?  Herodotus and Gibbon catalogued them for us long ago.  What separates our era from others is its noisome combination of political utopianism, credulous faith in science, and instantaneous media hysteria. (All products of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, by the way.)

Of course, each of us believes that our own soul (however one wishes to define that term) is not subject to manipulation or theft by this seductive triumvirate.  I delude myself in this fashion on a daily basis, and the next morning I have to begin my soul-preservation project all over again.

(Yikes!  What set me off on that bout of pontificating?  Turning on the TV, naturally.)

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

                       Popular Press

I am the echoing rock that sends you back
Your own voice grown so bold that with surprise
You murmur, 'Ah, how sensible I am --
The plain bluff man, the enemy of sham --
How sane, how wise!'

I am the mirror where your image moves,
Neat and obedient twin, until one day
It moves before you move, and it is you
Who have to ape its moods and motions, who
Must now obey.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).

Algernon Newton, "Birmingham with the Hall of Memory" (1929)

The way we live now is expertly diagnosed in the following poem, which was first published in 1951.  Imagine what has transpired in the ensuing 60-odd years.

                       The Chimeras

Absence of heart -- as in public buildings --
Absence of mind -- as in public speeches --
Absence of worth -- as in goods intended for the public,

Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
Not a scrap is left, not even his name.

Indescribable -- being neither this nor that --
Uncountable -- being any number --
Unreal -- being anything but what they are,

And ugly customers for someone to encounter,
It is our fault entirely if we do:
They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.

Curious from wantonness -- to see what they are like --
Cruel from fear -- to put a stop to them --
Incredulous from conceit -- to prove they cannot be --

We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
It is our strength with which they gobble us up.

If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
Get by them safely, he is still in danger,
With pity remembering what once they were,

Of turning back to help them.  Don't.
What they were once was what they would not be;
Not liking what they are not is what now they are.

No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
And do not let your goodness self-deceive you:
It is good that they are but not that they are thus.

W. H. Auden, Nones (1951).

Remember:  it is "our fault entirely" if we encounter these "ugly customers," and we must never forget that "they cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them."  But here's the rub:  we must be "chaste, brave, humble" in order to "get by them safely" -- a tall order when we have been schooled in "wantonness," "fear," and "conceit."  How prescient Auden was in that choice of words!  Have a look at the (non-natural) World out there today:  a non-stop carnival of wantonness, fear, and conceit.

Is Auden over-simplifying?  Perhaps.  But the heart of what he says rings true.  "Walk on, keep on walking."

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Once, long ago, I drove through the rolling fields of the Virginia countryside at dusk in autumn, searching for the site of a somewhat obscure Civil War cavalry skirmish.  In those days, GPS navigation systems did not exist, so my only guide was one of those devilishly-folded state road maps that used to be available free-of-charge at gas stations.  (When I was young, my grandparents called them "service stations."  Ah, another lost world!)  However, the map was of no use since it only went as far as numbered county roads, and I was beyond them.

The sun had begun to set, and I was about to call it a day, when I came upon a crossroads in the middle of empty pastures and harvested cornfields.  Utility poles and their drooping lines headed off in all four directions.  There were no buildings.  But there was, unaccountably, a telephone booth in one corner of the intersection, attached to a utility pole by a cable.  (Yet another lost world.)

A signpost stood beside the road near the telephone booth.  Wondrously, one of the signpost's arms -- pointing east into the coming dark -- contained the name I was looking for: "Yellow Tavern."

I was so taken by the scene that I decided to call my then-girlfriend (who was three time zones away) in order to tell her that I was standing in the middle of the Virginia countryside at sunset calling her from a lonely telephone booth and that I had just discovered the way to Yellow Tavern. She was not impressed.  Perhaps this was due to the fact that I had called her collect to deliver this momentous news.

I'm afraid that I cannot concoct a moral to this story, other than this:  even in this day and age, we should be on the lookout for signposts.  You never know when one might turn up.

Tristram Hillier, "The Argument" (1943)

                         The Signpost

The dim sea glints chill.  The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller's-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.

I read the sign.  Which way shall I go?
A voice says:  You would not have doubted so
At twenty.  Another voice gentle with scorn
Says:  At twenty you wished you had never been born.

One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what 'twould be
To be sixty by this same post.  'You shall see,'
He laughed -- and I had to join his laughter --
'You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
'Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, --
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, --
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?'

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

Tristram Hillier, "January Landscape, Somerset" (1962)

Well, well, there is quite a bit to consider in that poem, isn't there? Although Thomas's character is strongly present in nearly every poem he wrote, I believe that "The Signpost" may be the one that captures him best. To use Philip Larkin's phrase (which I have quoted before):  "the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  And we mustn't forget the anecdote that Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" may have been prompted by Thomas's tendency to hesitate or second-guess in choosing between forks in the road when he and Frost went out on walks together in England.

In addition, there is the heartbreaking irony in ". . . the first voice told/The other he wished to know what 'twould  be/To be sixty by this same post." We know in sad retrospect that that possibility ended at Arras in April of 1917.  But perhaps it doesn't matter:  ". . . but either before or after,/Whatever happens, it must befall,/A mouthful of earth to remedy all/Regrets and wishes shall freely be given."  (Those lines could just as well have been written by Thomas Hardy, don't you think?)

Finally, there is the astounding technical accomplishment:  fifteen rhyming couplets that sound like everyday conversation.  This is exactly what Thomas and Frost were after.  Who knows what 20th century English and American poetry would have been like had Thomas lived, and had he continued as "the only brother" Frost "ever had"?

Tristram Hillier, "Trott's Lane" (c. 1944)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Night Thoughts

At the beginning of winter, I tend to be drawn to Chinese and Japanese poetry.  Perhaps the spareness and the directness of the poetry match the look of the world at this time of year.  But spareness and directness do not preclude intimation and depth.

In a recent post, I mentioned that I like to let a poem sit with me for a while in order to give it time to unfold.  I think this is particularly important with respect to Chinese and Japanese poems.  They are deceptively short and "simple."  We mustn't make the mistake of thinking that they are therefore "simplistic."  Appreciating them takes patience and -- for those of us who are not Chinese or Japanese -- a willingness to let go of our discursive tendencies (as well as of our tendency to jabber).

The fact that a "simple" four-line poem by Li Po (701-762) can be translated into sometimes widely varying English versions suggests that there may be more to the poem than immediately meets the eye.  This doesn't mean that the poem needs to be "explicated" or picked apart.  It just needs to be given time to quietly sit.

          Still Night Thoughts

Moonlight in front of my bed --
I took it for frost on the ground!
I lift my eyes to watch the mountain moon,
lower them and dream of home.

Li Po (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (translator and editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)

            In the Quiet Night

The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight -- like hoarfrost -- in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.

Li Po (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).

In a note to the poem, Seth states that "the moon in line 3 is specified as a hill moon or mountain moon."  Ibid, page 51.

Samuel Palmer, "The Bellman" (1879)

                    On a Quiet Night

I saw the moonlight before my couch,
And wondered if it were not the frost on the ground.
I raised my head and looked out on the mountain moon;
I bowed my head and thought of my far-off home.

Li Po (translated by Shigeyoshi Obata), in Shigeyoshi Obata, The Works of Li-Po the Chinese Poet (J. M. Dent 1923).

Graham Sutherland, "Michaelmas" (1928)

               Quiet Night Thoughts

A pool of moonlight on my bed in this late hour
like a blanket of frost on the world.

I lift my eyes to a bright mountain moon.
Remembering my home, I bow.

Li Po (translated by Sam Hamill),  in Sam Hamill, Banished Immortal: Visions of Li T'ai Po (White Pine Press 1987).

My lack of Chinese precludes me from opining as to which translation is the "best."  Of course, this raises the perennial question:  is the "best" translation the one that is the most "accurate" or the one that captures the "poetic" essence of the original?  I am not about to dive into that oft-contested battle.  I only wish to suggest that this sort of poetry deserves patience and contemplative attention, for it has a depth that belies its surface simplicity.

Samuel Palmer, "The Lonely Tower" (1879)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Constellated Daisies"

Before I return to dust I intend to read all 947 of Thomas Hardy's poems. (James Gibson has numbered them for us in his 1976 edition of Hardy's Complete Poems.)  Mind you, I say this with a sense of excitement and anticipation, not with a sense of obligation.

I suspect that many of those who love Hardy's poetry feel as I do:  no matter how long you have been reading him, there is always the expectation that, upon turning the page, a new discovery awaits you.  Part of me wishes that I will never reach the end:  I like the fact that uncharted territory lies before me.

Edward Bawden, "The Canmore Mountain Range" (1950)

Thus, for instance, I recently came across the following poem for the first time.  It turns out that one line of it fits well with the astronomical theme of my previous post.  And a lovely line it is.

               The Rambler

I do not see the hills around,
Nor mark the tints the copses wear;
I do not note the grassy ground
And constellated daisies there.

I hear not the contralto note
Of cuckoos hid on either hand,
The whirr that shakes the nighthawk's throat
When eve's brown awning hoods the land.

Some say each songster, tree, and mead --
All eloquent of love divine --
Receives their constant careful heed:
Such keen appraisement is not mine.

The tones around me that I hear,
The aspects, meanings, shapes I see,
Are those far back ones missed when near,
And now perceived too late by me!

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

Many people know Hardy's poetry only through the anthology pieces:  e.g., "During Wind and Rain," "The Darkling Thrush," "The Convergence of the Twain," "Channel Firing," "The Oxen," et cetera.  But Hardy's depth, expansiveness, and charm only become apparent if one immerses oneself in the hundreds of poems that fill in the interstices of his universe -- and it is indeed an entire universe.

Like those hundreds of other poems, "The Rambler" states a truth about life; a small truth, perhaps, but one we all have felt.  (Which is not to say that it is meant to instruct or to edify.  Hardy was above all an intent and penetrating onlooker, not a moral instructor.)  In addition (for one reader, at least), it contains a beautiful image that, once seen, can never be forgotten: "constellated daisies."  In Hardy's poetry, there is no end of these small, beautiful, and humanly truthful revelations.

Edward Bawden, "Emma Nelson by the Fire" (1987)

"Constellated daisies" brings to mind a poem by Andrew Young that has appeared here before, but is worth revisiting (even if it is not the daisy time of year).  Heavenly bodies again make an appearance.


The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.

And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.

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

Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Winter Moon, With Planet

I am ignorant of the seasonal progress of the moon and the other heavenly bodies across the night sky.  I really ought to make a study of these things, especially since time is running out on ventures of this sort.  But I prefer to remain in the dark (so to speak), and to be pleasantly surprised by what happens overhead.  Ignorant, yes, but surprised.

This week, for instance, I saw something wonderful in the southwest quarter of the evening sky.  The day had been cold and clear.  The sun had just set beyond the Olympic Mountains into the unseen Pacific.  A waxing crescent moon had risen.  Below it, at about a 45-degree angle to the left, was a brilliant point of light.  At first I thought the point of light was an airplane above the horizon.  But it didn't move.  Was it a planet or a star?  I had no idea.

The two of them together -- the crescent of white and the point of white -- were beautiful and remote and noble and cold.  Of course, that's just a human perspective -- an unnecessary commentary.  I later discovered (the Wonders of the Internet) that the brilliant point of light was Venus.  Not that it matters, mind you.  A star would have sufficed.

Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)

Yesterday, I came across the following haiku.  It somehow seems to relate to what I saw in the evening sky, although I'm not sure why.

     The previous owner:
I know it all, --
     Down to the very cold he felt.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 168.

The haiku appears at the end of the following prose passage:

"Yearning for a shelter where I could enjoy a fleeting dream, I rented a house at the foot of Ueno Hill even though it was as tiny as a snail's shell. The previous resident, perhaps to relieve the boredom of life, had planted a morning glory and had it climb up the fence.  The flower was now dead, and only its seeds lay scattered on the ground.  The scene looked more forlorn now than in autumn; the seeds, it seemed to me, were like someone's tears.  Near the entrance to the house was a tiny patch of cultivated land where some vegetable appears to have been sown.  Soft green sprouts were emerging out of the ground, though snow still remained nearby.  Were they to be used for rice cake on the auspicious New Year's morning?

Pasted on the wall were good luck banners to keep thieves away from the house.  Hanging above the cooking stove was a sacred rope shaped like a daikon radish, believed to protect the house from fire.  A pine branch offered to the kitchen god still kept the living color of green, though it had fallen sideways on the altar.  All those things suggested the previous resident had planned to live here forever.  Yet he was now gone without a trace, as if he had vanished in the clouds or in the mountains.  Could there be such a thing as a permanent home anywhere on this earth?  After a little while, someone else will be saying what I am saying now."

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa (Brill 2004).

Harald Sohlberg, "Midsummer Night" (c. 1910)

And this seems to follow naturally, although, again, I'm not sure why.

            An Old Man's Winter Night

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him -- at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping here, he scared it once again
In clomping off; -- and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept.  The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

Robert Frost, Mountain Interval (1916).

Among many marvelous things, this always catches me:  "concerned with he knew what."

Harald Sohlberg, "A View of Vestfold" (1909)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Dream Of The Butterfly

The older one gets, the more life begins to take on a dreamlike aspect. Why is this?  First, one's awareness of the transience of all things (including oneself) assumes a more concrete presence.  Mind you, this awareness needn't be accompanied by fear or anxiety.  In fact, one's reaction might well be:  "Ah, yes, so that's how it is.  I suspected as much."  Second, decades of exposure to the follies and capers (evil or absurd) of one's fellow human beings (again, including oneself) cannot help but make you wonder if you are living in a dream world (or a nightmare world).

I claim no originality in making these observations.  The ancient Greek philosophers (Heraclitus, for instance) and the ancient Chinese Taoist philosophers explained these things around 500 B.C. (or earlier).   So much for our Modern God of Progress.  If anything, we have gone backwards since those times.

Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were the two greatest Taoist philosophers.  Lao Tzu is known for the Tao Te Ching, and Chuang Tzu is known for the eponymous Chuang Tzu.  ("Chuang" was his surname; "Tzu" means "Master;" his given name was "Chou.")  Arguments have been made that neither man ever existed, and that the books are the products of various philosophers of the time whose names are unknown to us.

Chuang Tzu often wrote in allegories, the best-known of which is this:

"Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.  He didn't know he was Chuang Chou.  Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou.  But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou.  Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction!"

Burton Watson (translator), Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 45.

Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Li Po (701-762) was one of the five great T'ang Dynasty poets (the other four are Wang Wei, Tu Fu,  Po Chu-i, and Han Shan).  The poetry of all five is suffused with Taoism (together with greater and lesser degrees of Buddhism), but Li Po's poetry in particular reflects the riddling (and antic) qualities of Taoism.  Hence, it is not surprising that he would have written a poem about Chuang Tzu's dream of the butterfly.

       Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly

Dreaming, Chuang Tzu became a butterfly;
waking, the butterfly became the man.

Who knows which is real?
Who knows where endless changes end?

The waters of the deepest sea
return to the smallest stream.

The melon-grower outside the city gate
was once the King of the Hill.

Even rank and riches eventually disappear.
You know.  And still you toil.

Li Po, in Sam Hamill  (translator), Banished Immortal: Visions of Li T'ai-po (White Pine Press 1987).

Stanley Spencer, "The Boatbuilder's Yard, Cookham" (1936)

For purposes of comparison, here is another translation of the same poem:

          Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly

Chuang Chou in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Chou at waking.
Which was the real -- the butterfly or the man?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil, -- what for?

Li Po, in Shigeyoshi Obata (translator), The Works of Li-Po (J. M. Dent 1923).

What, then, are we to do with this wisdom?  After all, we have to wake up each day and go about our business, butterfly dream or not.  But it can't hurt to have a little perspective.  A histrionic false world -- loud and vulgar and disingenuous -- clamors for our attention.  That world is nothing but a chimera.

Stanley Spencer, "Mending Cowls, Cookham" (1915)

Monday, December 2, 2013


Poetry can help us to appreciate the homely and the commonplace.  This is as it should be:  the homely and the commonplace World -- where we spend our days -- is also a miraculous and a wondrous World.  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.44 (translated by C. K. Ogden) (1922).

And thus we move from swedes and mangels to furniture, and to the poet laureate of furniture, Thomas Hardy.  William Blake sees the World in a Grain of Sand.  Hardy sees the World in aging furniture.

Dod Procter, "Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage" (c. 1930-1935)

Ghosts are matter-of-fact presences in Hardy's poetry.  They are seldom frightening or ominous, and they are often quite willing to carry on a casual conversation, or to simply linger about, minding their own business.

             The Garden Seat

Its former green is blue and thin,
And its once firm legs sink in and in;
Soon it will break down unaware,
Soon it will break down unaware.

At night when reddest flowers are black
Those who once sat thereon come back;
Quite a row of them sitting there,
Quite a row of them sitting there.

With them the seat does not break down,
Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown,
For they are as light as upper air,
They are as light as upper air!

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

"Quite a row of them sitting there" is very nice:  a bit of humor (perhaps), coupled with a gentle reminder.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

Though a piece of furniture may not be haunted, it may still carry revenants with it.  Memories tend to attach themselves to things, don't they?  The emotions aroused by bric-a-brac can be surprising.

     The Little Old Table

Creak, little wood thing, creak,
When I touch you with elbow or knee;
That is the way you speak
Of one who gave you to me!

You, little table, she brought --
Brought me with her own hand,
As she looked at me with a thought
That I did not understand.

-- Whoever owns it anon,
And hears it, will never know
What a history hangs upon
This creak from long ago.

Thomas Hardy, Ibid.

Harriet Backer, "By Lamplight" (1890)

The following poem brings to mind something a contemporary reviewer wrote of another poem by Hardy:

"There is no line, until you reach the last four, that stops you with its beauty; and you run through the beauty of the last four to reach the end; and then the beauty of the whole takes you and flows back through the whole poem."

Anonymous reviewer, Times Literary Supplement (June 1, 1922), quoted in Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Poetry, 1860-1928 (Columbia University Press 1981), page 2.  This is an extremely perceptive observation, and goes a long way towards increasing one's appreciation of Hardy's art.

                    Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
        Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
        But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
        That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations
        And with its ancient fashioning
                Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
        As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
        As it recedes, though the eye may frame
                Its shape the same.

On the clock's dull dial a foggy finger,
        Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
        In the wont of a moth on a summer night,
                Creeps on my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing --
        As whilom -- just over the strings by the nut,
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
        In airy quivers, as if it would cut
                The plaintive gut.

And I see a face by that box for tinder,
        Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder
        Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
                Or goes out stark.

Well, well.  It is best to be up and doing,
        The world has no use for one to-day
Who eyes things thus -- no aim pursuing!
        He should not continue in this stay,
                But sink away.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917). "Whilom" (line 22) means "at some past time; some time before or ago; once upon a time."  OED.

I am very fond of "Well, well" in the final stanza, just as I am very fond of "Well, well!" in the final stanza of "The Going":

        Well, well!  All's past amend,
        Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
        That such swift fleeing
        No soul foreseeing --
Not even I -- would undo me so!

C. H. H. Burleigh
"The Burleigh Family Taking Tea at Wilbury Crescent, Hove" (1947)