Friday, December 31, 2010

"The Old Year's Gone Away To Nothingness And Night": John Clare

As the New Year arrives we should spare a thought for the Old Year.  Yes, T. S. Eliot has suggested that "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past." ("Burnt Norton" in Four Quartets.)  However, I fear that such a mystic state of affairs is not accessible to most of us.  Instead, I think that John Clare (1793-1864) has it right:  we should bid the Old Year a fond fare thee well. 

               The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
   To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
   Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
   In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
   In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
   Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
   And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
   In every cot and hall --
A guest to every heart's desire,
   And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
   Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
   Are things identified;
But time once torn away
   No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
   Left the Old Year lost to all.

John Clare, Poems, Chiefly from Manuscript (edited by Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter) (1920).

                              Eric Ravilious, "Downs in Winter" (1934)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Life Explained, Part Ten: "All We Make Is Enough Barely To Seem A Bee's Din, A Beetle-Scheme"

I first encountered Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929) as the editor of the Boswell journals that were discovered in the 1920s at Malahide Castle in Ireland.  Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly at an early age before completing the project. I later discovered that Scott had also written poetry.  Here is a poem of Scott's that offers a quiet view of what to expect from Life.

     All Our Joy Is Enough

All we make is enough
Barely to seem
A bee's din,
A beetle-scheme --
Sleepy stuff
For God to dream:

All our joy is enough
At most to fill
A thimble cup
A little wind puff
Can shake, can spill:
Fill it up;
Be still.

All we know is enough;
Though written wide,
Small spider yet
With tangled stride
Will soon be off
The page's side:

Modern Poetry 1922-1934: An Anthology (1934).

                         Graham Sutherland, "Oast House" (1932)

Monday, December 27, 2010

"The Sky For Roof, Mountains For Walls"

I have fond memories of visiting the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire.  The weather was fine on the occasions that I visited -- the combination of a deep green sward of grass, grey walls, and the blue sky was beautiful.  I had (and have) no deep thoughts about the visits -- nothing, for instance, about the remorselessness of time, the vanity of human wishes, the storied ecclesiastical history of England.  What was (and is, in memory) remarkable was strolling on wide, soft floors of grass, surrounded by tall grey walls without a roof, doorways without doors, arched empty windows opening onto fields and trees.  And, over and around it all, the huge sky.

                    The Ruined Chapel

From meadows with the sheep so shorn
They, not their lambs, seem newly born,
Through the graveyard I pass,
Where only blue plume-thistle waves
And headstones lie so deep in grass
They follow dead men to their graves,
And as I enter by no door
This chapel where the slow moss crawls
I wonder that so small a floor
Can have the sky for roof, mountains for walls.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems ( 1960).  The final two lines are lovely, of course.  But "headstones lie so deep in grass/They follow dead men to their graves" is very fine as well.

                                                 Rievaulx Abbey

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"Yuletide In A Younger World"

Thomas Hardy was not always the cheeriest of characters.  (How's that for an understatement?)  However, he did seem to have a bit of (just a bit of) a soft spot in his heart for Christmas.  Still, ghosts and beggars do make appearances in some of his Christmas poems.  The following poem was written by Hardy when he was in his eighties -- it has no frightful ghosts, just fondly-remembered wraiths from Christmases past.

              Yuletide in a Younger World

   We believed in highdays then,
      And could glimpse at night
         On Christmas Eve
Imminent oncomings of radiant revel --
      Doings of delight: --
      Now we have no such sight.

   We had eyes for phantoms then,
      And at bridge or stile
         On Christmas Eve
Clear beheld those countless ones who had crossed it
      Cross again in file: --
      Such has ceased longwhile!

   We liked divination then,
      And, as they homeward wound
         On Christmas Eve,
We could read men's dreams within them spinning
      Even as wheels spin round: --
      Now we are blinker-bound.

   We heard still small voices then,
      And, in the dim serene
         Of Christmas Eve,
Caught the far-time tones of fire-filled prophets
      Long on earth unseen. . . .
      -- Can such ever have been?

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

                                       Robin Tanner, "Christmas" (1929)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Larkin Snow Poem: "Your Life Walking Into Mine"

One perhaps does not expect a snow poem by Philip Larkin to be a metaphysical meditation along the lines of Robert Frost's "Desert Places" or Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man."  This is certainly not a criticism of Larkin (who can be, at times, as metaphysical as they come):  it simply means that his meditations tend to stay closer to home -- they usually have something to do with getting through the day.  Which is no small thing.

Larkin wrote the following poem on February 1, 1976.  It is untitled.

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,

Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

                                 Harald Sohlberg, "Storgaten" (1904)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Nothing That Is Not There And The Nothing That Is"

In the third stanza of "Desert Places," Robert Frost writes:

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

Not surprisingly, these lines often prompt comparisons with Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man" -- and not merely on account of the snow.

I still find it hard to credit, but I first encountered "The Snow Man" in a high school literature textbook when I was 14 or 15 years old.  (The fact that it was even in the textbook amazes me:  did the editors have a misguided notion of the capabilities of American youth?  Or, in those faraway days, did they harbor grandiose hopes for the future of literature in this fair land?)  For some unaccountable reason, I recall that the poem was accompanied by an illustration of a jaunty snow man with the usual stove-pipe hat, wool scarf, coal lumps for eyes, and a carrot for a nose.  Of course, I had no idea what the poem was about.

                    The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

             Jan Beerstraaten, "The Castle of Muiden in Winter" (1658)

What does it mean?  Here is what Stevens said:  "I shall explain The Snow Man as an example of the necessity of identifying oneself with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it."  Letter from Wallace Stevens to Hi Simons, April 18, 1944, Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 464.  I take this statement with a grain of salt.  After all, Stevens also said:  "I have the greatest dislike for explanations.  As soon as people are perfectly sure of a poem they are just as likely as not to have no further interest in it; it loses whatever potency it had."  Letter from Wallace Stevens to Ronald Lane Latimer, November 15, 1935, Letters of Wallace Stevens, page 294.

Maybe it is best to approach the poem from another angle entirely.  Here is something that Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote some time before Stevens wrote "The Snow Man":

The sense of the world must lie outside the world.  In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen:  in it no value exists -- and if it did exist, it would have no value.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.41 (1921) (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness; emphasis in original).  Or perhaps it boils down to the final Proposition of the Tractatus:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  Or, translated differently:  "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Life Explained, Part Nine: "Entirely"

The poetry of Louis MacNeice can be very witty.  But something serious is usually lurking nearby.  Here, for instance, is an Explanation of Life that is witty, but . . .   


If we could get the hang of it entirely
   It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
   And falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
   Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
   Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
   In somebody else's arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city's
   Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
   Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
   Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
   And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
   A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
   Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
   Road that is right entirely.

Louis MacNeice, Plant and Phantom (1941).

                       Samuel Palmer, "The Magic Apple Tree" (1830)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Two Chinese Snow Poems

Although I am mindful of the inevitable dangers of translation, I enjoy reading Chinese poetry -- in particular, the great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907): Wang Wei, Po Chu-i, Tu Fu, and Li Po.  In recognition of the season, I offer two snow poems.  The translations are by Burton Watson, who, along with Arthur Waley, provided me with an introduction to Chinese verse.

The first poem is by Po Chu-i (772-846):

                         Night Snow

I wondered why the covers felt so cold,
and then I saw how bright my window was.
Night far gone, I know the snow must be deep --
from time to time I hear the bamboos cracking.

                                 Pekka Halonen, "Talvimaisema" (1917)

The second poem is by Liu Tsung-Yuan (773-819):

                              River Snow

From a thousand hills, bird flights have vanished;
on ten thousand paths, human traces wiped out:
lone boat, an old man in straw cape and hat,
fishing alone in the cold river snow.

                             Pekka Halonen, "Winter Landscape" (1919)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Late MacNeice: "Outdoors The Wind. Indoors The Locked Heart And The Lost Key."

Louis MacNeice has often been thought of as a Thirties (and Forties) poet and/or as one of the satellites circling Auden.  However, in recent years it has been recognized that he stands on his own, and that the generational pigeon-holing is too simplistic.  Still, a tendency remains to focus on the poems that he wrote during the Thirties and Forties -- poems such as "Wolves," "Snow," "The Sunlight on the Garden," and Autumn Journal.  Although these poems (and many others from his earlier years) are indeed wonderful, I believe that MacNeice wrote a number of his finest poems later in his life.

After 1948 (when Holes in the Sky was published), MacNeice went through a dry spell that lasted nearly 10 years.  He did publish Ten Burnt Offerings (1952) and Autumn Sequel (1954) during this time, but these lengthy poems were not of the same quality as that which had come before.  However, things changed in 1957 -- the year in which MacNeice turned 50 and the year in which Visitations was published.  In that volume, and in the two further books that were published prior to his too-early death in 1963 (Solstices in 1961 and The Burning Perch in 1963), MacNeice was again at his best.

                         House on a Cliff

Indoors the tang of a tiny oil lamp.  Outdoors
The winking signal on the waste of sea.
Indoors the sound of the wind.  Outdoors the wind.
Indoors the locked heart and the lost key.

Outdoors the chill, the void, the siren.  Indoors
The strong man pained to find his red blood cools,
While the blind clock grows louder, faster.  Outdoors
The silent moon, the garrulous tides she rules.

Indoors ancestral curse-cum-blessing.  Outdoors
The empty bowl of heaven, the empty deep.
Indoors a purposeful man who talks at cross
Purposes, to himself, in a broken sleep.

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (1957).

                                  Stanley Spencer, "Fire Alight" (1936)

                              Figure of Eight

In the top and front of a bus, eager to meet his fate,
He pressed with foot and mind to gather speed,
Then, when the lights were changing, jumped and hurried,
Though dead on time, to the meeting place agreed,
But there was no one there.  He chose to wait.
No one came.  He need not perhaps have worried.

Whereas today in the rear and gloom of a train,
Loath, loath to meet his fate, he cowers and prays
For some last-minute hitch, some unheard-of abdication,
But, winding up the black thread of his days,
The wheels roll on and make it all too plain
Who will be there to meet him at the station.

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (1957).  The repetition in "Loath, loath to meet his fate" is very nice, I think.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The World, Whose Aspect Is Nowhere Strange, But Is Nowhere Home"

I am in the midst of a bout of nostalgia brought on by Christmas music, a viewing of the movie "White Christmas" (with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye), and the news of a blizzard in my Minnesota birthplace.  Thus, for instance, a line from the song "River" by Joni Mitchell keeps popping into my head:  "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."  (Despite the fact that I have never skated on a river.)

The following poem by Clifford Dyment (1914-1971) came to mind as well -- even though, as an American, the recitation of English and European cars escapes me.  Nonetheless, I am in complete sympathy with the final two lines of the poem.

As a boy with a richness of needs I wandered
In car parks and streets, epicure of Lagondas,
Minervas, Invictas, and Hispano Suizas;
And I sampled as roughage and amusing sauce
Little Rovers and Rileys, and the occasional funny
Trojan with chain drive, and the Morris Cowleys
With their modest bonnets, sedate Fiat
Of the nineteen-twenties, and the Alvis, middle-brow
Between the raffish sports car and the family bus.
I was tempted by aircraft, too, sniffing
Over The Aeroplane and Flight -- those kites,
They seem today, knocked up in a backyard
By young and oily artists who painted with rivets:
Westland Wapiti, Bristol Bulldog, and the great
De Havilland Hercules, invading the desert
And pulsing within its sleep like a troubling nerve;
And surely, I think, as I remember those feasts,
They were days of excitement and lavish surprise?
Where is the tantalizing richness and hazard
Of assertive styling, of crazy rigs,
Now that a car is unremarkably one of a million,
And an aeroplane is a tubular schedule?  I wander
Still in the car parks, but now uneasily,
Thinking that engineering is a sort of evolution --
Out of the fittest come the many merely fit;
And I wonder if I am wrong, or the world, whose aspect
Is nowhere strange, but is nowhere home.

Clifford Dyment, Collected Poems (1970).  (The poem is untitled.  It was written in the mid-1950s.)

                                     Pekka Halonen, "Ensilumi" (1931) 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"The Drowsy Motion Of The River R"

As we have seen in "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," Wallace Stevens speaks of the World as a river -- "an unnamed flowing."  Of course, this idea is certainly not one that is unique to Stevens.  But, for Stevens, the flowing of the World means nothing unless the Imagination is applied to it.  Thus, Life consists of two motions:  the motion of the World and the motion of the Imagination.  Perhaps this is expressed best in the title of one of Stevens's late poems:  "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination."

Whew!  How's that for some high-falutin' talk?  I don't know what got into me.  Enough palaver.  The only thing that matters is the poetry.  To wit:

                         An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

                         Eero Jarnefelt, "Pond Water Crowfoot" (1895)

And, on the subject of motion, consider this:

   The Place of the Solitaires

Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;
And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

                                John Constable, "Cloud Study" (1822)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"The Fallow Deer At The Lonely House"

The fallow deer in Edward Thomas's "Out in the Dark" bring to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy.  Hardy was familiar with Thomas's poetry:  as I mentioned in a previous post, Edmund Blunden's biographer states that "on Hardy's death in 1928 his widow presented Edmund with Hardy's treasured copy of Edward Thomas's Poems as a memento of [Blunden's] visits [to Hardy]."  Barry Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography (1990), page 135.  In The Annotated Collected Poems, Edna Longley suggests that "Out in the Dark" "probably influenced Hardy's 'The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House.'"

   The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House

One without looks in to-night
   Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in to-night
   As we sit and think
   By the fender-brink.

We do not discern those eyes
   Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
   Wondering, aglow,
   Fourfooted, tiptoe.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words (1928).

                               John Nash, "Wild Garden, Winter" (1959)

Fallow deer also make an appearance in a poem by John Drinkwater (1882-1937), who was a contemporary of Thomas and Hardy.


Shy in their herding dwell the fallow deer.
They are spirits of wild sense.  Nobody near
Comes upon their pastures.  There a life they live,
Of sufficient beauty, phantom, fugitive,
Treading as in jungles free leopards do,
Printless as evelight, instant as dew.
The great kine are patient, and home-coming sheep
Know our bidding.  The fallow deer keep
Delicate and far their counsels wild,
Never to be folded reconciled
To the spoiling hand as the poor flocks are;
Lightfoot, and swift, and unfamiliar,
These you may not hinder, unconfined
Beautiful flocks of the mind.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (1919).

                     Spencer Frederick Gore, "Richmond Park" (c. 1914)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Out In The Dark Over The Snow": Edward Thomas And Robert Frost

Robert Frost's "Desert Places" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" put me in mind of a poem by Edward Thomas.  Thomas's poem in turn reminds me of the affinity between Thomas and Frost.  For both of them, the darkness (of a forest or of night or of interstellar space) is frightening as well as alluring:  "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" (Frost); "Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead/Hang stars like seeds of light/In vain" (Thomas); "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars" (Frost).  (And consider also Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" and "An Old Man's Winter Night".)

Thomas wrote the first draft of the following poem on Christmas Eve of 1916 while he was on leave with his family at High Beech in Essex.

               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.

                    Eugene Jansson, "Riddarfjarden, Stockholm" (1898)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life Explained, Part Eight: "Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length"

Thus far in my "Life Explained" series, I confess that the news has not been all good.  For instance, Christina Rossetti has asked:  "Does the Road Wind Up-Hill All the Way?"  And Philip Larkin has observed (no surprise here) that "Continuing to live -- that is, repeat/A habit formed to get necessaries--/Is nearly always losing, or going without./It varies."  Perhaps it is time for some good news.  And who better to provide that news than a sometimes cranky farmer from New England?

One should never underestimate Robert Frost.  Beyond the old chestnuts, hidden gems await us.  Frost can be irritating, but he is nothing if not crafty.  A phrase to bear in mind when reading his poetry:  "Gone into if not explained."

     Happiness Makes Up in Height
        for What It Lacks in Length

Oh, stormy stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view --
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn,
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

Lest we be deceived into thinking that Frost is offering us a simple feel-good, self-help nostrum, we are well-advised not to forget line 12:  "If my mistrust is right."  This is one of those characteristic Frostian utterances that give something and then take something away (or, take something away and then give something back).  (Edward Thomas is also quite good at this.  One can see why he and Frost got along together so well.)

Oh, and we are also well-advised not to forget "change of solitude" in the final line.  Again, as Frost said:  "Gone into if not explained."

                                   Edvard Munch, "The Storm" (1893)

Friday, December 3, 2010

"All Night I Sat Reading A Book"

As autumn moves to a close, another visit to Wallace Stevens is in order.  But first, a brief interlude with Robert Frost.  Stevens and Frost were acquaintances -- they met in Key West in the 1930s during one of Stevens's winter vacations in Florida.  Their relationship was not a close one, but the very thought of those two prickly characters spending time together is amusing.

After a meeting with Frost in October of 1942, Stevens wrote to Frost:

"My wife and I both enjoyed seeing you again today, and both of us hope that some time when you are in Hartford, or thereabouts, you will come out to see us at home:  spring, summer or autumn, but not winter.  We can only show you seed catalogues in winter.  How nice it would be to sit in the garden and imagine that we were living in a world in which everything was as it ought to be."

Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), pages 422-423.  What a lovely final sentence!  It sounds as if it could slip right into a poem.  I wonder what Frost thought of it.

                    The Reader

All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
Of sombre pages.

It was autumn and falling stars
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.

No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, "Everything
Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

The sombre pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
In the frosty heaven.

Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (1936).

As is often the case, I don't know exactly what Stevens is getting at.  But, whatever it is, it sounds beautiful.  Perhaps a clue may be found in something that Stevens wrote in a letter in 1949:

"Often when I am writing poetry I have in mind an image of reading a page of a large book:  I mean the large page of a book.  What I read is what I like."

Letters of Wallace Stevens, letter to Barbara Church (July 27, 1949).

      Laurits Andersen Ring, "A Road Near Vinderod, Zealand" (1898) 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"The Woods Are Lovely, Dark And Deep"

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken" are probably Robert Frost's "best known" and "best loved" poems.  They are so familiar that it is difficult to read them with freshness.  Although, for Americans of a certain age (I will not presume to speak for any American born after Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term in office), it may not even be necessary to read them since they have been embedded in our memory from an early age.  In any event, they are worth revisiting.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

                               Akseli Gallen-Kallela, "Winter" (1903)

As a start to considering the artistry behind the poem, I find the following comment by Jay Parini  to be very helpful:  "The aphoristic quality of this little poem, which seems so natural that one cannot imagine its having been invented, is such that one can hardly not memorize it."  Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life (1999), page 213 (emphasis in original).

And consider a point of punctuation.  After Frost's death, Edward Connery Lathem "edited" a new edition of Frost's collected poems.  As part of his "editing," Lathem decided to "correct" the punctuation of a number of the poems.  One of his "corrections" was to change the first line of the final stanza from "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" to "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep."  In his excellent study of Frost's poetry, Richard Poirier has this to say about Lathem's change:

In fact, the woods are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely "lovely, dark, and deep."  Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are "lovely, [i.e.] dark and deep"; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.

Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977), page 181.

William Pritchard, who has written a fine study of Frost's poetry (Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered), echoes Poirier's criticism of Lathem's change to the line:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep," now has an added comma after "dark."  It is as if a prim schoolmaster were at work, showing his concern for Robert's getting the correct punctuation into the business or friendly letter so that his English will be Good and Understood By All, rather than "Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,/So can't get saved."

William Pritchard, "Frost Revised," Playing It By Ear: Literary Essays and Reviews (1994), page 26.  Fortunately, the original version ("dark and deep") has been restored in the Library of America edition of Frost's poetry and prose edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. 

                          Peder  Monsted, "Ponte Campovasto" (1914)

Monday, November 29, 2010

On Happiness: Saul Bellow, Samuel Johnson, And Ludwig Wittgenstein

As I recently mentioned, Saul Bellow's Letters (Viking 2010) have just been published.  While browsing through them, I came across this in a brief letter written by Bellow on April 11, 1970:  "As for Life -- even at best one feels deprived of something."

A day or so later, I was idly thumbing through Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and happened upon this:  "Mr. Johnson observed that it seemed certain that happiness could not be found in this life, because so many had tried to find it in such a variety of ways, and had not found it."

                                                Vilhelm Hammershoi
                                        "Sunbeams or Sunshine" (1900)

On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein -- who one might expect to have a sceptical view of the prospect of happiness in life -- offers us hope (albeit in his usual enigmatic fashion):

"The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.

The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life's mould.  So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit the mould, what is problematic will disappear."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (1984). 

Wittgenstein said something similar (and equally enigmatic) in Proposition 6.521 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

"The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. 

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)"

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness) (1922). 

(I have long felt -- and I am certainly not the first to make this observation -- that Wittgenstein was a Buddhist or a Taoist without knowing it.  It is remarkable how many of his gnomic, aphoristic statements echo Chinese and Japanese Buddhist and Taoist writings, both philosophical and poetic.  When I read him I often feel that I have stumbled into something written by, for instance, Lao-Tzu, Han Shan, Wang Wei, Saigyo, or Ryokan.)

                           Vilhelm Hammershoi, "White Doors" (1905)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Neglected Poets: Charlotte Mew

The poetry of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was admired by some of the best poets of her day:  Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and Siegfried Sassoon (among others) all praised her.  Because of her difficult financial  circumstances, in 1923 Hardy, de la Mare, and John Masefield successfully petitioned for her to receive a Civil List Pension.  Their petition to the Prime Minister read, in part:  "As she is a poet, writing poetry of a rare kind, she may not be widely known for many years.  We feel that it would be a wise and gracious act, worthy of a great people, to give to this rare spirit the means of doing her work until the work can appraise and reward it." 


I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart;
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide --
   Rooms where for good or for ill, things died:
But there is the room where we two lie dead
Though every morning we seem to wake, and might just as well seem
                to sleep again
   As we shall some day in the other dustier quieter bed
   Out there -- in the sun -- in the rain.

                                                           Paul Nash
                               "Riviera Window, Cros de Cagnes" (1926)

                              Afternoon Tea

Please you, excuse me, good five-o'clock people,
   I've lost my last hatful of words,
And my heart's in the wood up above the church steeple,
   I'd rather have tea with -- the birds.

Gay Kate's stolen kisses, poor Barnaby's scars,
   John's losses and Mary's gains,
Oh! what do they matter, my dears, to the stars
   Or the glow-worms in the lanes!

I'd rather lie under the tall elm-trees,
   With old rooks talking loud overhead,
To watch a red squirrel run over my knees,
   Very still on my brackeny bed.

And wonder what feathers the wrens will be taking
   For lining their nests next Spring;
Or why the tossed shadow of boughs in a great wind shaking
   Is such a lovely thing.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).

                                   Paul Nash, "Mimosa Wood" (1926)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Snow Falling And Night Falling Fast, Oh, Fast"

We have had our first snowfall, a snowfall accompanied by icy winds out of Canada and Alaska.  As always, it was lovely to watch the snow swirl down beneath the streetlights as night came on.  Being in a Robert Frost mood of late, one of his bleaker poems came to mind.  (As has often been noted  -- beginning, perhaps, with Randall Jarrell's fine essay "To the Laodiceans" in 1952 -- the notion of Frost as a grandfatherly, comforting, proverbial poet misses a great deal.)

                         Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

                       Akseli Gallen-Kallela, "Imatra in Winter" (1893)   

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Moose Swims Across A Lake

Thirty or so years ago, I spent a summer living in a cabin on the south shore of an otherwise uninhabited mountain lake in northern Idaho.  The lake was about three-quarters of a mile wide from north to south.  Every so often, a moose would swim across the lake from the north shore, stepping out of the water into the cattails just a few yards away from the cabin.  Then it would slowly walk off into the thick, moss-hung woods.

We never know when an unforgettable memory is about to arrive, do we?

Years later -- to my surprise and delight -- I discovered the following poem by Robert Frost.

                         The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush -- and that was all.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

                             Akseli Gallen Kallela, "Lake Keitele" (1905)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Thrush Sings Within A Dark Forest

A thrush sings within a dark forest.  What does it mean?  Is it an allegory?  The beginning of a fairy tale?  Or is it simply a thrush singing within a dark forest?

                Come In

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn't been.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

                    William Fraser Garden, "A Wood in Winter" (1885)

                    The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Like marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track.  But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead:  all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

Edward Thomas wrote "The Green Roads" in June of 1916.

            William Fraser Garden, "Rabbits on a Country Path" (1883)

Friday, November 19, 2010

"My November Guest"

I am of two minds about Robert Frost.  On the one hand, he drives me nuts when he dons his too-clever-by-half New England sage hat.  (Randall Jarrell -- who greatly admired Frost's poetry -- called this side of Frost the "Yankee Editorialist.")  On the other hand, there are the indispensable poems.  The classics, of course:  "The Road Not Taken," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Birches," "After Apple-Picking."  But there are many others.  For instance:  "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," "Desert Places," "Into My Own," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "Come In."

And, beyond the poetry and the personality, we should be grateful for Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas, and for his pushing of Thomas to begin writing poetry.  I continue to find the meeting of those two remarkable characters at that time and in that place to be something of a miracle.  I am aware that there is a danger of over-romanticizing their friendship, but I still shake my head in wonder that those two found each other.

Thus, for November, and in honor of Robert Frost:

            My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
   Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
   She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
   She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
   Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
   The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
   And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
   The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
   And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

                       Eero Jarnefelt, "Lake Shore with Reeds" (1905)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Distracted From Distraction By Distraction"

In "Burnt Norton" (which later became part of Four Quartets), T. S. Eliot wrote that we moderns are "distracted from distraction by distraction."  "Burnt Norton" was published in 1936.  Imagine what Eliot would think of "distraction" today.

In an "Afterword" to his Collected Stories, Saul Bellow has this to say about "distraction":

Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it.  True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by "idea men," advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchormen, et cetera.  Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion.  But no one can have an easy time of it. . . . Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

By some this is seen as a challenge to their ability to maintain internal order.  Others have acquired a taste for distraction, and they freely consent to be addled.  It may even seem to many that by being agitated they are satisfying the claims of society.  The scope of the disorder can even be oddly flattering:  "Just look -- this tremendous noisy frantic monstrous agglomeration.  There's never been anything like it.  And we are it!  This is us!"

Saul Bellow, Collected Stories (2001), pages 441-442.

Years earlier, Bellow said something similar in Humboldt's Gift (1975):  "society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances."

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

"The Course Of A Particular"

The sound of boughs threshing in the wind is gone.  Now, a few dry leaves rattle overhead.  Which leads to the following poem -- a poem set in winter, not mid-autumn, but one that seems apt at this time of year.

                         The Course of a Particular

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

The leaves cry . . . One holds off and merely hears the cry.
It is a busy cry, concerning someone else.
And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

The leaves cry.  It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Collected Poetry and Prose (1997).

                                               William Fraser Garden
                                          "Near Bromham Hall" (1889)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"The Leaf" And "The Last Leaf": Andrew Young

The leaves, alas, are quickly vanishing as the wind and the rain do their work.  Yet, a few survivors remain.  Here, on that subject, are two poems by Andrew Young.

               The Leaf

Sometimes an autumn leaf
   That falls upon the ground,
   Gives the heart a wound
And wakes an ancient grief.

But I weep not that all
   The leaves of autumn die,
   I only weep that I
Should live to see them fall.

                                              Arthur Anderson Fraser
                                         "Punting on the Flood" (1891)

               The Last Leaf

I saw how rows of white raindrops
   From bare boughs shone,
And how the storm had stript the leaves
   Forgetting none
Save one left high on a top twig
   Swinging alone;
Then that too bursting into song
   Fled and was gone.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (1960).

                                            Arthur Anderson Fraser
                          "The Ouse, Bedford from Newenham" (1886)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Remembrance Day

On Remembrance Day, I shall stay with Edward Thomas.  As is so often the case, he accomplishes quietly what others seek to accomplish in high-toned language.

                                A Private

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frosty night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
'At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush,' said he,
'I slept.'  None knew which bush.  Above the town,
Beyond 'The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire.  And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -- that, too, he secret keeps.

Thomas wrote the poem in January of 1915.  He enlisted in July of that year.

                                Robin Tanner, "Still Is The Land" (1983)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"There's Nothing Like The Sun": Edward Thomas

In November of 1915, Edward Thomas was posted to Hare Hall Camp, near Romford in Essex, where he served as a map-reading instructor for officers.  During that month, he wrote three poems.  This is one of them.

               There's Nothing Like the Sun

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me:  November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang.  But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said --
Or, if I could live long enough, should say --
'There's nothing like the sun that shines today.'
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

On November 1, Thomas made the following entry in one of his notebooks:  "Sweet as last damsons on spangled tree when November starling imitates the swallow in sunny interval between rain and all is still and dripping."  In her annotation to the poem, Edna Longley identifies the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXX ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") as the source of Thomas's refrain.

        Charles Thomas Wheeler (1892-1974), "Winter Sun" (c. 1970)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"What The River Says, That Is What I Say"

Continuing with the theme of rivers, here is a lovely poem by William Stafford.  For me, at least, it is one of those poems that you memorize automatically after reading it a few times.

                           Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.  Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.  We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

William Stafford, Stories That Could Be True (1977).

                                                 Stanley Roy Badmin
                                 "Skating on Oakwood Pond" (c. 1960)

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The River": Patrick MacDonogh

The following poem is by Patrick MacDonogh, who I have previously identified as a "neglected poet."  Perhaps Wallace Stevens's "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" got me to thinking of the poem.  Or it may have been the thought of "dead leaves/On their way to the river" in Derek Mahon's "Leaves."

               The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (The Gallery Press 2001).  As I noted in my earlier post on MacDonogh, Poems contains an excellent introduction by Mahon.

                         S. J. Birch, "Our Little Stream, Lamorna" (1926)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Praise Of Saul Bellow

I have been looking forward to this week's publication of Saul Bellow's Letters.  To mark this event, here is a passage from The Adventures of Augie March that displays all of the wonder of  Bellow's writing:  the vivid particularity, the thought, the feeling -- in short, the all-around beauty and wisdom of what Bellow did, time and time again.

"I remember I was in fishmarket square in Naples (and the Neapolitans are people who don't give up easily on consanguinity) -- this fishmarket where the mussels were done up in bouquets with colored string and slices of lemon, squids rotting out their sunk speckles from their flabbiness, steely fish bleeding and others with peculiar coins of scales -- and I saw an old beggar with his eyes closed sitting in the shells who had had written on his chest in mercurochrome:  Profit by my imminent death to send a greeting to your loved ones in Purgatory: 50 lire.

Dying or not, this witty old man was sassing everybody about the circle of love that protects you.  His skinny chest went up and down with the respiration of the deep-sea stink of the hot shore and its smell of explosions and fires.  The war had gone north not so long before.  The Neapolitan passersby grinned and smarted, longing and ironical as they read this ingenious challenge.

You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world, and suddenly it becomes more strange than ever.  The living are not what they were, the dead die again and again, and at last for good.

I see this now.  At that time not."

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (Viking 1953).

                                                      Edvard Munch
               "Self-portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed" (1940-43)

Monday, November 1, 2010

"The Region November"

I fear that the recent spate of seasonally-themed posts may have turned this blog into a Farmer's Almanac of sorts -- without the prescient weather predictions.  But the temptation in this, my favorite season, is too great and I am too weak.  And thus . . .

               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 (1997).

If you prefer a seasonal variation on Stevens's refrains, you may wish to consider the final stanza of Philip Larkin's "The Trees":

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

                          Stanley Roy Badmin, "November" (c. 1958)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On The Eve Of An Election

Please note:  this is not a political blog and this is not a political post.  Rather, it is a post about one's nation, and about the political class (not the people) of one's nation.  The following poem is by C. H. Sisson, an Englishman who was described, in the Telegraph's 2003 obituary, as a "doughty defender of traditional Anglicanism" who held "unfashionable high Tory views."  (As I have said before:  A man after my own heart, even though I am not an Englishman, an Anglican, or a Tory.)

               Thinking of Politics

Land of my fathers, you escape me now
And yet I will in no wise let you go:
Let none imagine that I do not know
How little sight of you the times allow.
Yet you are there, and live, no matter how
The troubles which surround you seem to grow:
The steps of ancestors are always slow,
But always there behind the current row,
And always and already on the way:
They will be heard on the appropriate day.

C. H. Sisson, What and Who (1994).

                       A future presidential candidate at the age of 42.
                            Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.
                                   Cold Harbor, Virginia.  June, 1864.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Lost The Wind's Warning": Ivor Gurney

Derek Mahon's "Leaves" (please see my post for October 24, 2010) brings to mind the following poem by Ivor Gurney -- the wind and the leaves, of course, but Time and Loss as well.  According to the editor of the collection in which the poem appears, it was "written on the back of an Oxford University Press letterhead dated 6 March 1929.  [It was] signed 'Valentine Fane' by Gurney; he frequently used such names on his later manuscripts."

                  The Wind

All night the fierce wind blew --
All night I knew
Time, like a dark wind, blowing
All days, all lives, all memories
Down empty endless skies --
A blind wind, strowing
Bright leaves of life's torn tree
through blank eternity:
Dreadfully swift, Time blew.
All night I knew
the outrush of its going.

At dawn a thin rain wept.
Worn out, I slept
And woke to a fair morning.
My days were amply long, and I content
In their accomplishment --
Lost the wind's warning.

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

                                     A. J. Casson, "Pike Lake" (c. 1929)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The Plain Sense Of Things": Wallace Stevens

In 1952, the editor of the periodical The Nation asked Wallace Stevens if he would be willing to submit a poem to the publication.  Stevens agreed to do so.  In response to the request, Stevens wrote seven short poems in the late summer and early autumn of that year.

On September 29, he observed to a correspondent:  "To-day there is a light as of the end of the boulevards -- the extra hour of lateness and the sense of autumn."  In a letter dated October 8 to another correspondent, Stevens wrote:  "This morning I walked around in the park here for almost an hour before coming to the office and felt as blank as one of the ponds which in the weather at this time of year are motionless.  But perhaps it was the blankness that made me enjoy it so much."

On November 12, Stevens submitted the poems to the editor of The Nation.  In the final paragraph of the letter that accompanied the poems, Stevens wrote:  "Now that these poems have been completed they seem to have nothing to do with anything in particular, except poetry, and you will have to determine for yourself whether they are appropriate for use in The Nation."  All of the poems were published on December 6, 1952.  The following poem is one of those submitted by Stevens.

                 The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things.  It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined.  The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

                  Stanley Spencer, "Farm Pond, Leonard Stanley" (1940)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"An Infinite Rustling And Sighing": Derek Mahon

I fear that I am wearing out my autumn welcome, but please bear with me as another leaf-tinged offering arrives.  The following poem is by Derek Mahon.


The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.

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

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Weaker And Weaker, The Sunlight Falls In The Afternoon": Wallace Stevens

Rilke's "Herbsttag" brings to mind an autumn-themed poem by Wallace Stevens that has a German title: "Lebensweisheitspielerei."  One annotator of Stevens's poems translates the compound-word used by Stevens as "worldly wisdom's game."  Another annotator translates it as "practical wisdom's amusement."  In any event, here is the poem.


Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon.  The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.

Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954).

As I suggested in my previous post on "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," I think that the poems that Stevens wrote late in his life (from, say, 1950 onwards, when he was in his seventies) are wonderful.  The verbal playfulness and rhetorical flourishes are still there, but they are toned down, and there is, I believe, an emotional element that is not often found in his earlier poetry.

                           Edward Hopper, "Rooms by the Sea" (1951)