Thursday, April 20, 2017


Ah, spring!  Season of timelessness and transience, hope and heartbreak, arrivals and departures.  The story of our life in a few swift weeks.  Yet it is certainly not a season of grief.  Wistfulness and bittersweetness, yes, but not grief.

Spring beautifully -- and gently -- counsels us to be mindful of our mortality.  This is sound advice.  In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons.  I am not suggesting that we should brood over "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death" from morn to eventide.  But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

               To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
          Why do ye fall so fast?
          Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
          To blush and gently smile;
                         And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
          An hour or half's delight;
          And so to bid goodnight?
'Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
          Merely to show your worth,
                         And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
          May read how soon things have
          Their end, though ne'r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
          Like you a while:  They glide
                         Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

"Death is the mother of beauty."  (Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning.") What do blossoms do?  They "stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last."  What do "lovely leaves" do?  "They glide/Into the grave."  This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve.  Our response should be gratitude.  Gratitude and acceptance.

"Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)

Alas, in this part of the world the daffodils and the tulips have nearly passed their prime.  Many of the daffodils (golden yellow and creamy white) have begun to droop.  Here and there, fallen tulip petals -- brightly-colored, sad things -- lie on the lawns and the sidewalks.

Still, as I have noted here in the past, the World has a way of providing us with compensations for its departures and losses.  As the tulips and the daffodils begin to vanish, the leaves have begun to uncurl and open on the trees.  From a distance, the stands of trees in the park that I walk through each day are enveloped in a light green haze of just-born leaves.

               To Daffadills

Fair daffadills, we weep to see
     You haste away so soon:
As yet the early-rising sun
     Has not attain'd his noon.
                              Stay, stay,
     Until the hasting day
                              Has run
     But to the Even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
          Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
     We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
     As you, or any thing.
                              We die,
     As your hours do, and dry
     Like to the Summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
          Ne'r to be found again.

Robert Herrick, Poem 316, Hesperides.  "Daffadill" was the spelling used in Herrick's time.

Does the World perfectly balance itself?  Do its compensations make up for its losses?  That is not our concern.  And, in any case, it is beyond our ken. Which is perfectly fine, and as it ought to be.  However, as Herrick once again reminds us, there is at least one thing of which we can be sure.

     Divination by a Daffadill

When a daffadill I see,
Hanging down his head t'wards me;
Guess I may, what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buryed.

Robert Herrick, Poem 107, Ibid.

It is indeed a daffodil life that we live.  This is something to remind ourselves of, but not lose sleep over.  Gratitude, not grief.

"Trouble not yourself with wishing that things may be just as you would have them; but be well pleased that they should be just as they are, and then you will live easy."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by George Stanhope, 1741).

Lucien Pissarro, "Rade de Bormes" (1923)

Spring is not spring without a visit to this:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  I would only add that we mustn't forget the blossoms of the plum, pear, and apple:  all equally breathtaking in their beauty, all equally heartbreaking in their transience.

The pale, delicate blossoms of fruit trees in spring and the brilliant leaves of autumn:  it is through these gifts that I have arrived at my sense of life and of the World.  I have no idea how this happened.  Perhaps it is nothing more than an affinity for particular qualities of light and for particular colors.  But, from these blossoms and leaves, I have come to know this:  we live in a World of immanence.  There is something that lies behind them and beyond them, reticent yet articulate, untouchable yet all-embracing.
            To Cherry Blossoms

Ye may simper, blush, and smile,
And perfume the air a while:
But (sweet things) ye must be gone;
Fruit, ye know, is coming on:
Then, Ah! Then, where is your grace,
When as cherries come in place?

Robert Herrick, Poem 189, Hesperides.

Today I walked upon a white carpet of fallen petals.  Six months from today I will walk upon a red, orange, and yellow carpet of fallen leaves.  The path is the same.

"Require not things to happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by Elizabeth Carter, 1759).

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

Consider this:  we live in a World in which white and pink petals flutter around us like snow.  Where else would we wish to be?

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

On a blue-sky and white-cloud afternoon last week, as I came to the end of my walk, I heard a lone bird singing.  It suddenly occurred to me:  while I had been walking, wherever I had been, birds had been singing and chattering all around me the entire time.  I was once again reminded:  we live in Paradise.

"Don't seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you'll have a calm and happy life."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by Robin Hard, 2014).

Lucien Pissarro, "Mimosa, Lavandou" (1923)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

For Edward Thomas

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas at the Battle of Arras.  In 1917, April 9 fell on Easter Monday.

Thomas wrote the following poem on April 6, 1915:  two days after Easter Sunday.  He enlisted three months later.

               In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

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

At times, Thomas's poetry sounds like an anticipatory, exploratory elegy for himself.  Which is not to say that his poetry is "confessional" or self-obsessed.  Rather, it is simply the case that he had an elegiac view of the World:  he was always  aware that he was a small part of a World that is ceaselessly passing and vanishing.  He was forever saying farewell.

             How at Once

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.

This is a variation upon "First Known When Lost," which he wrote a year and a half earlier:  "I never had noticed it until/'Twas gone . . ."

John Nash (1893-1977), "A Gloucestershire Landscape" (1914)

I suspect that more poems have been written about Edward Thomas than about any other English poet.  Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas (compiled by Anne Harvey) (Enitharmon Press 1991) collects 80 poems about him by 69 different poets.  As one might expect, the most affecting of these poems were written by those who knew him.

                    To E. T.: 1917

You sleep too well -- too far away,
     For sorrowing word to soothe or wound;
Your very quiet seems to say
     How longed-for a peace you have found.

Else, had not death so lured you on,
     You would have grieved -- 'twixt joy and fear --
To know how my small loving son
     Had wept for you, my dear.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (Constable 1918).

Thomas and de la Mare were close friends.  I find this poem to be particularly moving and beautiful because it poignantly conveys, in a short space, both the intense grief felt by de la Mare (and his family) at the loss of Thomas and the essence of Thomas:  that combination of melancholy, sensitivity, kindness, charm, and unbridgeable solitariness.

Also quite revealing is this:  "had not death so lured you on."  De la Mare knew Thomas well.

            Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems.

"Out in the Dark" is Thomas's penultimate poem.  He wrote it on Christmas Eve, 1916.  He departed for France on January 29, 1917.

John Nash, "Ripe Corn" (1946)

Like many people, I came to know Edward Thomas through "Adlestrop," which I happened upon in an anthology in the early 1980s.  "Adlestrop" is wonderful, of course.  (It is one of those poems you know by heart after reading it two or three times, without setting out to memorize it.)  However, the poem that made me realize I had found an essential companion for life was this:

            The New House

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain:  old griefs, and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems.

As I noted in my March 12 post on E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, the realization that one is in the presence of unforgettable beauty is, for me at least, accompanied by physical and emotional reactions:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in one's chair, and, finally, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight.  This is what happened to me the first time I read "The New House."  And it still happens each time I read it.

John Nash, "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

When one becomes acquainted with the poetry and prose of Edward Thomas, it is natural to feel affection for him as a person, and to grieve at the tragedy of his death at too young an age.  It is thus understandable that a great deal of biographical attention has been paid to him in recent years. However, I fear that a preoccupation with the particulars of his life may carry us away from his writing, which ought to be our primary focus.

It is a difficult balance to strike, for, as John Bayley observes in the following passage, the relationship between Thomas's life and his writing is significant:

"The poet who adds a new world to our experience -- as Auden does, as Larkin does -- is for that reason the kind of poet who really counts.  Such a poet is naturally unaware of what he is doing because he is becoming himself in his poetry, his true and involuntary self, not making and remaking himself, by the poetic will, as Yeats did, and as Frost did.  Yeats and Frost are great poets of course, but their greatness is of a quite different kind.  They do not bring a new sort of poetic world, the world of themselves, involuntarily into being."

John Bayley, "The Self in the Poem," in Jonathan Barker (editor), The Art of Edward Thomas (Poetry Wales Press 1987), page 40.

The intertwining of Thomas's life and poetry, and how that intertwining affects us, is captured in this lovely poem by W. H. Auden.

                                        To E. T.

Those thick walls never shake beneath the rumbling wheel
     No scratch of mole nor lisping worm you feel
          So surely do those windows seal.

But here and there your music and your words are read
     And someone learns what elm and badger said
          To you who loved them and are dead.

So when the blackbird tries his cadences anew
     There kindles still in eyes you never knew
          The light that would have shone in you.

W. H. Auden, Juvenilia: Poems, 1922-1928 (edited by Katherine Bucknell) (Princeton University Press 1994).  The poem, in Auden's handwriting, is found on "the blank leaf facing the last poem" in Auden's copy of the 1920 edition of Thomas's Collected Poems.  Ibid, page 100.  It was likely written in the summer of 1925, when Auden was 18 years old.  Ibid.

John Nash, "The Cornfield" (1918)