Sunday, May 21, 2017


I often feel that I have spent most of my life sleepwalking or daydreaming.  Asleep at the switch.  Nearly everything has escaped me.  But each moment offers the possibility of redemption:  a new opportunity to be awake and to be present.  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

Fortunately for us, the beautiful particulars of the World are boundlessly and endlessly merciful.  Every day, without fail, they gently shake us by the shoulders and whisper in our ear:  "Wake up!  Look over here.  Listen to this."  Not in so many words, of course.  The World is wordless.  Yet it is not reticent.  Nor is it impassive.  Hence, immanence.

                            The Wood

I walked a nut-wood's gloom.  And overhead
A pigeon's wing beat on the hidden boughs,
And shrews upon shy tunnelling woke thin
Late winter leaves with trickling sound.  Across
My narrow path I saw the carrier ants
Burdened with little pieces of bright straw.
These things I heard and saw, with senses fine
For all the little traffic of the wood,
While everywhere, above me, underfoot,
And haunting every avenue of leaves,
Was mystery, unresting, taciturn.
          .          .          .          .          .
And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (Sidgwick & Jackson 1919).  The ellipses appear in the original.

George Allsopp, "Wharfdale Landscape" (1960)

My daily walk takes me past a row of a dozen or so big-leaf maples that stand along the edge of a large meadow.  Old, tall, and stately, several of them have trunks that are three- to four-feet in diameter.  I have been walking past the maples for more than twenty years.  However, it was not until earlier this spring that I noticed how beautiful their thick grey trunks are when set against the deep green of the wild grasses that cover the meadow.

I have been seeing that grey-against-green for years now.  Yet the beauty of it had eluded me.  Where had I been all that time?  Ah, but the World is patient with sleepwalkers and daydreamers.  For that I am grateful.  Those trees and that meadow will now never be the same for me.

                              Moonlit Apples

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
     A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
     Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
     And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep,
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
     On moon-washed apples of wonder.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

As is always the case with the beauty and truth of the World, one thing leads to another.  A few days ago, I walked past another spring meadow, newly-mown and bright green, sloping upward toward a grey stone wall. Seven black crows were scattered across it.  Black-against-green, grey-against-green . . . and so it goes while we are here.

The one looking --
he also lends some color
     to the moonlight.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 295.

Samuel John Birch, "Nancledra: Old Cornish Village" (1931)

These revelations of beauty and truth necessarily occur within the time in which we find ourselves.  And each modern age is contrived to turn us into somnambulists, whether the "modern age" is today, a century ago, or a millennium ago.  Thus, William Wordsworth in 1802:

"For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."

William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).

Or John Drinkwater in 1921:

"The breaking down of all barriers of space has opened up imposing vistas of imperial activity, of which the benefits are well known to Ministers of State; it has also, we learn, shown us the way to a brotherhood of man, on the principle, it may be supposed, that the domestic virtue of brotherly affection is best fostered by not staying at home.  Of these rhetorical blessings I do not feel that I am qualified to speak; I see them in misty prospect, and am unmoved.  From the manner and character of their prophets they are, at least, suspect in my mind.

"But as to one result of this merely mechanical extending of an horizon I am clear, and clear that it is spiritually injurious to man.  The growing tendency of a world where means of instantaneous communication and rapid transit and the ever-widening ramifications of commercial interests more and more make everybody's business everybody's business, is to breed a shallow and aimless cosmopolitanism in all of us at the expense of an exact and intimate growth in our knowledge of ourselves and our neighbours and the land of our birth."

John Drinkwater, "The World and the Artist," The Bookman's Journal and Print Collector, Volume V, No. 1 (October 1921), page 8.

As for us?  Long-time readers of this blog know my feelings about the false gods of our own time:  Progress, Science, and disingenuous, malevolent, and dehumanizing utopian political schemes.  I will not rehearse my objections again.

Nothing ever changes, does it?  But, withal, the beauty and truth of the World abide within the chimerical emptiness of each successive "modern age."  The choice is ours.


Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties.

Hubert Wellington, "Overhanging Branch, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

At this time of year, at the tip of each pine tree twig, bright yellow-green tufts of new needles emerge.  The needles are delicate, and soft to the touch. After the spectacular spring show of the fruit tree blossoms, with all of its bittersweet beauty, all of its passing and vanishing, there is something endearing and reassuring about the simple loveliness of these unfolding tufts.

What are we to make of these wordless communions?


I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides.

William Birch (1895-1968), "Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham"

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Do we grow wiser with age?  Well, let's not get too carried away.  Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this:  I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one's ignorance is a good thing.  It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair.  It relieves us of the great weight of trying to "figure things out," of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed.  It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start:  loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Come to think of it, a strong argument can be made that living a life of love and gratitude is exactly why we are here.  All else takes care of itself.  But this is not an abstract proposition:  it is a day-to-day way of being, a matter of striving to cultivate attention and repose throughout each of our fleeting and priceless days.


Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles --
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don't want to look at them:  their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.

I don't want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

Cavafy was horrified at the prospect of death and did not take growing old well.  Hence the tone of "Candles."  The Japanese haiku poets are, like Cavafy, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves.  However, they tend to have a more equable view of things.

     Slow days passing, accumulating, --
How distant they are,
     The things of the past!

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 46.

Francis Le Maistre (1859-1940), "Seascape with Two Women"

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go.  As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits.  If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost.  Something along these lines is required:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go.  There's no stopping them.

               Dream Days

'When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.'

For the days are long --
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity.  But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

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

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long -- "an eternity."  (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?)  The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

     Calm days,
The swift years

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.

 Kathleen Wilson (d. 1936), "Thatched Cottages"

Like Cavafy, Philip Larkin was terrified of death.  But this did not prevent him from creating poems that are full of Beauty and Truth, and which celebrate the wonder and joy of being alive -- in their own Larkinesque way, of course.  Do not believe those who caricature Larkin as a dour, cranky misanthrope.  Anybody who holds this view has not taken the time to actually read Larkin's poems (or his prose).


What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber & Faber 1964).

Larkin being Larkin, the second stanza is required.  But consider the first stanza.  Some may say that the line "They are to be happy in" is intended to be mordant or ironic.  It is not.  Others may say that the entire stanza is nothing more than a truism, a cliché.  In fact, it is a simple statement of truth.  An aversion to the articulation of essential truths is endemic amongst ironic moderns.

The modern urge to over-complicate life puzzles me.  "Days are where we live."  Look around.  Everything is right there in front of you.

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice-seedlings.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 170.

Is there anything more beautiful and true than this?

John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "The Harbour, Polperro, Cornwall"

Another poet who is also unfairly caricatured as a dour, cranky misanthrope has this to say about how we ought to spend our days: "Life is not hurrying//on to a receding future, nor hankering after/an imagined past."  (R. S. Thomas, "The Bright Field.")  As I have noted here before, when I set out on my afternoon walk, I often remind myself:  "Stop thinking.  Just look and listen."  An abandonment of the past and the future is implicit in this admonition.  However, apart from a few fugitive moments, I always fail miserably.

                      Days and Moments

The drowsy earth, craving the quiet of night,
Turns her green shoulder from the sun's last ray;
Less than a moment in her solar flight
Now seems, alas! thou fleeting one, life's happiest day.

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Yes, all of this daily passing and vanishing is bound to provoke an "Alas!" now and then.  Yet it seems to me that our diurnal existence is where, from moment to moment, Paradise lies.  Still, we tend to long for something more:  passing and vanishing can be hard to accept.  Here's a thought:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.4311 (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).  An alternative translation is:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."  Ibid (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

Who needs Eternity?  One day is enough.

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

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 195.

Giffard Hocart Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"