Monday, April 29, 2013

Mutability, Concluded: "The Unimaginable Touch Of Time"

William Wordsworth's best expression of "mutability" is, I think, found in the eight short lines of "A slumber did my spirit seal," which has appeared here previously.  Like the best Japanese and Chinese poems, it is long on nouns and verbs and short on adjectives and adverbs:  "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees."  An instance of less being more -- without any loss of emotional impact.

Of course, Wordsworth was wont to go on at greater length, and with less economy, as Romantics tend to do.  Thus, he -- like Shelley -- wrote a poem titled "Mutability."  The poem was written later in his life, long after he had been excoriated by Shelley and others for being too conservative.  (Some things never change.)

Thomas Moran, "The Chasm of the Colorado" (1873)


From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

William Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822).

"Truth fails not."  Is that "Truth" or "truth"?  Either way, I'm not so sure.  Unless the truth he speaks of is "the unimaginable touch of Time."

Thomas Moran
"Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory" (1882)

As in my previous post, a Japanese poem may provide a nice balance to that trademark Romantic combination of effusiveness and melancholy.

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world

Saigyo (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

As I noted above, long on nouns and verbs.  But as lovely and as straight-to-the-heart-of-things as poetry can get.  "The unimaginable touch of Time," put differently.

Thomas Moran, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1893)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mutability, Revisited: "We Are As Clouds That Veil The Midnight Moon"

My previous post contained the epigraph to Canto VI of Edmund Spenser's Mutabilitie.  I'm afraid that this leads me in a simplistic fashion to the following poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

But, come to think of it, "mutability" is at bottom pretty much the subject of all poetry (and of all art), isn't it?  Thus, following the thread of mutability is bound to lead anywhere and everywhere.  "All flesh is grass," et cetera.

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951), "Clouds over the Orwell"


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
     How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! -- yet soon
     Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
     Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
     One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest. -- A dream has power to poison sleep;
     We rise. -- One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
     Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! -- For, be it joy or sorrow,
     The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
     Nought may endure but Mutability.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alastor (1816).  "Lyres" (line 5) refers to Aeolian (wind) harps.

Oddly, for all of the poem's Romantic flourishes and conceits, my favorite line is:  "The path of its departure still is free."

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

As is usually the case, the Japanese and Chinese poets can boil this mutability business down to a few lines.

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

Saigyo (1118-1190) (translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite), in The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964).

Mind you, I am always ready and willing to abandon myself to the moon, clouds, winds, and sighing Aeolian harps of Shelley's Romanticism. However, the down-to-earth, yet gentle, words of Saigyo hit home with greater emotional force (for me, at least).  Perhaps this is due to the lovely saving grace of Saigyo's final two lines, which put everything into place in a quiet and -- once again -- gentle way:  "Yet with the same light/The moon goes on shining."

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Nature's First Green Is Gold"

As I have observed previously in connection with William Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal," it is sometimes difficult to appreciate well-known poems that we have lived with for years. However, circumstances may give us an opportunity to see them in a new light, often when we least expect it.

My daily walk usually takes me past a long row of tall bigleaf maples.  The trees are old, and the prevailing north wind has given them a southerly lean.  The trunks are wide and gnarled, and a few of the lower branches of each tree graze the ground.

At this time of year the maples are coming into leaf.  Yesterday, I stopped to look at the unfolding leaves, which are yellow-green as they emerge, flower-like, from the buds.  As I looked, the following poem -- one of those old chestnuts that are sometimes difficult to see afresh -- came back to me.

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

  Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

"But only so an hour" is right on the money:  in a couple of days, the new maple leaves will have turned a slightly darker shade of green.  "Leaf subsides to leaf" is very nice:  the image of leaves sinking or settling or relaxing (outward and downward) as they open -- and as they, in time, fall -- is a lovely and a redolent one.

Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Proud Change (not pleased in mortal things
     beneath the Moon to reign)
Pretends, as well of Gods as Men,
     to be the Sovereign.

Edmund Spenser, Epigraph to Canto VI, Mutabilitie (c. 1589) (spelling modernized).

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Small Things

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Woodspurge" prompted me to pay closer attention to the soil as I weeded the garden yesterday.  As I recently noted in connection with the annual awakening of the ant world, there is a great deal going on at ground level, much of which escapes our notice.

Eliot Hodgkin, "The Haberdashers' Hall, 8 May 1945" (1945)

             In the Fallow Field

I went down on my hands and knees
Looking for trees,
Twin leaves that, sprung from seeds,
Were now too big
For stems much thinner than a twig.
These soon with chamomile and clover
And other fallow weeds
Would be turned over;
And I was thinking how
It was a pity someone should not know
That a great forest fell before the plough.

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

Whenever I read Andrew Young's poetry, I cannot help but feel that I have paid insufficient attention to the world around me.  The following poem provides another instance of Young teaching us how to be on the lookout for things that we might otherwise miss.

                        The Fairy Ring

Here the horse-mushrooms make a fairy ring,
     Some standing upright and some overthrown,
A small Stonehenge, where heavy black snails cling
     And bite away, like Time, the tender stone.

Andrew Young, Ibid.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Undergrowth" (1941)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The Woodspurge Has A Cup Of Three"

I have commented previously upon two aspects of memory.  First, of all the hours that we have lived, only a small number of seemingly commonplace or nondescript moments lodge themselves in our brains, and remain subject to recall with great sensory and emotional clarity.  Of course, this means that these moments are not "commonplace" or "nondescript" at all. They leave a thread to be followed.

Second, when it comes to these exceptional moments, there are a few details that stand out from everything else.  These details no doubt caused the moment to burrow into our memory in the first place.  Again, they may seem commonplace or nondescript:  a cast of light, a sward of green, a path above the sea . . .

William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep)" (1852)

               The Woodspurge

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will, --
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was, --
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me, --
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (1887).

The crystal-clear, evocative quality of the woodspurge is reminiscent of "the crushed bracken and the wings/Of doves among dim branches" in Patrick MacDonogh's "Revaluation."


Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

William Holman Hunt
"The Festival of St Swithin (The Dovecot)" (1865)

Another poem by Rossetti seems apt.


Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (1887).

William Holman Hunt, "The Haunted Manor" (1849)

Friday, April 19, 2013

"An Atlantic High Prince Of Vapour . . . A True Monarch Of Air"

One might expect Ivor Gurney to have it in him to write a visionary poem about a single cloud.  And, sure enough, he did.  Yet Gurney's states of exaltation are nearly always firmly rooted in the here-and-now.  One has the sense that, whatever his verbal flights, Gurney's feet are in the dirt -- and he never forgets this fact.

It is a bright day in May.  A man is out walking alone in the English countryside.  He is hot and parched.  He thinks of water.  Then, after a sudden shadow passes, he looks up into the sky.

Hans Heysen, "Pewsey Vale (South Australia)" (1947)

                                 The Cloud

One could not see or think, the heat overcame one,
With a dazzle of square road to challenge and blind one,
No water was there, cow parsley the only flower
Of all May's garland this torrid before-summer hour,
And but one ploughman to break ten miles of solitariness.
No water, water to drink, stare at, the lovely clean grained one.

Where like a falcon on prey, shadow flung downward
Solid as gun-metal, the eyes sprang sunward
To salute the silver radiance of an Atlantic high
Prince of vapour required of the retinue
Continual changing of the outer-sea's flooding sun
Cloud royal, born called and ordered to domination,
Spring called him out of his tent in the azure of pleasure,
He girt his nobleness -- and in slow pace went onward
A true monarch of air chosen to service and station;
And directed on duties of patrolling the considered blue.
But what his course required being fulfilled, what fancy
Of beyond-imagination did his power escape to
With raiment of blown silver. . . .

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

The ellipses at the end of the poem appear in the original.  "The considered blue" (line 16) has always puzzled me, but perhaps Gurney has in mind the sense "held in consideration or regard, respected."  OED.  "The azure of pleasure" (line 13) is very nice.

Gilbert Spencer, "Blackmore Vale" (1931)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Today, on my afternoon walk, I came to the conclusion that I have failed to give clouds the attention they deserve.  I am not speaking of scientific attention.  I do not need to know their types.  Nor do I need to know the details of how they are formed.

Rather, I am speaking of my failure to look.  Michael Longley ends his poem "Out There" with these lines:  "I should have spent my life/Listening to the waves."  My thought today was:  "I should have spent my life looking at the clouds."

I once lived in a place where the sun set into the Indian Ocean.  To the west, there was nothing but water, sky, and clouds.  In terms of grandeur, nearly every evening was the Grand Canyon of Cloudland.

But much less can be more than enough.  Today, for instance:  a "high-builded cloud" (to borrow from Philip Larkin) in a powder blue sky moved first through the white-blossomed branches of a cherry tree and then onward through the creamy-blossomed branches of a magnolia tree.

William Brown, "Carlisle Canal Basin" (c. 1823)

                                    April, 1885

Wanton with long delay the gay spring leaping cometh;
The blackthorn starreth now his bough on the eve of May:
All day in the sweet box-tree the bee for pleasure hummeth:
The cuckoo sends afloat his note on the air all day.

Now dewy nights again and rain in gentle shower
At root of tree and flower have quenched the winter's drouth.
On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower
In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling south.

Robert Bridges, The Shorter Poems (1891).

Samuel Bough, "Cricket Match at Edenside, Carlisle" (c. 1844)

Spring goeth all in white,
Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
O'er heaven the white clouds stray:

     White butterflies in the air;
White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
Scatter their snow around.

Robert Bridges, Ibid.

The poem is untitled.  The OED defines "prank" (line 6) as "to adorn; to make colorful; to brighten up with."

Francis Dodd, "Ely" (1926)

Monday, April 15, 2013

"Their Lonely Betters"

At this time of year small piles of sand begin to appear along the seams of the sidewalks.  The ants have awakened, and have begun their work.  Who knows what is going on beneath our feet?  Complicated undertakings, no doubt.  And all without a word.

Adrian Paul Allinson
"The AFS Dig for Victory in St James's Square" (1942)

                  Their Lonely Betters

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

W. H. Auden, Nones (1951).

The final line brings to mind the final stanza of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":

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.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

The echo of Frost is presumably intentional.  Auden's "A Thanksgiving," written in the last year of his life, begins as follows:

     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) (italics in original).  "Thomas" refers to Edward Thomas.

Adrian Paul Allinson, "The Cornish April"

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Perspective, Part Five: "A Handful Of Sand"

My previous post amounted to a rant of sorts about political beings.  Some perspective is in order, both for myself -- for being on a high horse -- and for political beings (left, right, or center) the world over.

               Recording Thoughts

Years ago I retired to rest,
did some modest building in this crinkle of the mountain.
Here in the woods, no noise, no trash;
in front of my eaves, a stream of pure water.
In the past I hoped to profit by opening books;
now I'm used to playing games in the dirt.
What is there that's not a children's pastime?
Confucius, Lao Tzu -- a handful of sand.

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Richard Eurich, "Boats at Lyme Regis" (1937)

Or, as put differently by Geoffrey Scott:

    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:

Harold Monro (editor), Twentieth Century Poetry (1933).

Richard Eurich, "Lyme Regis" (1930)

Thursday, April 11, 2013


As I have noted before, I do my best to avoid politics, both domestic and international.  Life is too short.  I believe that trying to behave decently towards others is the most politic thing that one can do with one's life. Speaking for myself, this is struggle enough for one brief stay above ground.

Moreover, there is always the problem of having to identify your place on the political spectrum.  I suppose that I am a reactionary.  A wistful, laissez-faire reactionary.

On the other hand, there are those who like to think of themselves as being "progressive" and "open-minded" and "tolerant" when it comes to political matters.  (And, for them, everything is a political matter.)  There is something of a religious fervor about this self-designation.  It does seem to make them feel better about themselves.  Self-esteem (our modern mantra) is a wondrous thing, isn't it?

It has been edifying to see some (not all, but some) of these self-designated "progressive" and "open-minded" and "tolerant" political beings openly celebrating the recent death of a well-known politician.  Yes.  Of course. Why not?  Throw a party.  After all, from time immemorial the demise of an opponent (real or imagined) has always provided a perfect occasion to reaffirm the eternal verity of one's own deeply-held beliefs.

Now.  As to the state of the souls of the celebrants . . .

Richard Eurich, "Eddistone Light" (1974)

             The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (1941).

Paul Nash, "The Studio, New House, Rye" (1932)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Edward Thomas In Heaven"

On this date 96 years ago Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras. In 1917, April 9th fell on Easter Monday.

Laura Knight, "Cornfield" (c. 1953)

               Edward Thomas in Heaven

Edward, with thinning hair and hooded eyes
Walking in England, haversack sagging, emptied of lies,
Snuffing and rubbing Old Man in the palm of your hand
You smelled an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

In France, supposing the shell that missed
You and sucked your breath out as it passed
Released your soul according to the doctrine
You disbelieved and were brought up in,
From slaughtered fields to Christian purgatory?
(Assuming your working life, the sad history
You sweated through, and marvellous middens of rural stuff
You piled together were not purgatory enough?)
Are you now a changed person, gay and certain?
Your eyes unhooded, bland windows without a curtain?
Then it would not be heaven.  It would be mere loss
To be welcomed in by an assured Edward Thomas.
There must be doubt in heaven, to accommodate him
And others we listen for daily, who were human,
Snuffing and puzzling, which is why we listen.
How shall we recognise the ones we love
If next we see them fitting round God's finger like a glove?
While close-by round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
And angels of Breconshire and Hereford
Sing for them, and unimaginable Edward?

P. J. Kavanagh, Edward Thomas in Heaven (1974).

Laura Knight, "Wheatfield" (c. 1953)

Line 3 is an allusion to Thomas's poem "Old Man," which contains these lines:

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain.

There are a number of poems by Thomas to which line 4 ("an avenue, dark, nameless, without end") may allude, given the fact that he so often wrote about roads and paths.  Perhaps Kavanagh has in mind either "After Rain" ("The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed/Are thinly spread/In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,/As if they played") or "Interval" ("Where the firm soaked road/Mounts and is lost/In the high beech-wood/It shines almost").  Other candidates might be "The Other," "The Path," "Roads," "The Green Roads," and "The Lane."

And, finally, "Adlestrop" is the source of the last five lines of the poem:

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

Laura Knight, "A Valley at Evening"

Sunday, April 7, 2013

"Green, Blue, Yellow And Red -- God Is Down In The Swamps And Marshes"

As I have noted previously, Patrick Kavanagh experienced a poetic renaissance in the mid-1950s while recovering from successful surgery for lung cancer.  Many of the poems from this "Canal Bank period" are approximately (by hook or crook) sonnets.  The following fourteen lines capture both Kavanagh's free-floating exhilaration at having dodged a bullet and the expansive feeling that accompanies the arrival of Spring.

Seeing the magnolias and dogwoods and cherries in nearly full blossom this week, I agree wholeheartedly.

Christopher Sanders, "Study of Long Grass Near Polstead" (c. 1961)

                         The One

Green, blue, yellow and red --
God is down in the swamps and marshes,
Sensational as April and almost incred-
        ible the flowering of our catharsis.
A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked;
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals.  A primrose, a violet,
A violent wild iris -- but mostly anonymous performers,
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960).

In order to create a passable sonnet in this instance, Kavanagh breaks "incredible" at "incred-" in line 3 in order to obtain a rhyme for "red" in line 1.  Given his joy over Spring, I think that he should be forgiven.  And what but joy could lead to the rhyming of "marshes" and "catharsis"?

"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God/Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog" is marvelous.  (Although I'm not certain that "God" and "bog" is a true rhyme!)

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (c. 1958)

Friday, April 5, 2013


I am easy to please.  All seems right with the world when, on a sunny spring day, I can hear the hum of lawnmowers from various points in the distance, and the scent of freshly-cut grass arrives on a soft breeze.  Who says that there is no such thing as Paradise on Earth?

Here is John Ruskin (in one of those extravagant, wide-ranging apostrophes of his that make reading his books such a delight):

"The Greek, we have seen, delighted in the grass for its usefulness; the medieval, as also we moderns, for its colour and beauty.  But both dwell on it as the first element of the lovely landscape; we saw its use in Homer, we see also that Dante thinks the righteous spirits of the heathen enough comforted in Hades by having even the image of green grass put beneath their feet; the happy resting-place in Purgatory has no other delight than its grass and flowers; and, finally, in the terrestrial paradise, the feet of Matilda pause where the Lethe stream first bends the blades of grass.

Consider a little what a depth there is in this great instinct of the human race.  Gather a single blade of grass, and examine for a minute, quietly, its narrow sword-shaped strip of fluted green.  Nothing, as it seems there, of notable goodness or beauty.  A very little strength, and a very little tallness, and a few delicate long lines meeting in a point, -- not a perfect point either, but blunt and unfinished, by no means a creditable or apparently much cared-for example of Nature's workmanship; made, as it seems, only to be trodden on to-day, and to-morrow to be cast into the oven; and a little pale and hollow stalk, feeble and flaccid, leading down to the dull brown fibres of roots.  And yet, think of it well, and judge whether of all the gorgeous flowers that beam in summer air,  and of all strong and goodly trees, pleasant to the eyes or good for food, -- stately palm and pine, strong ash and oak, scented citron, burdened vine, -- there be any by man so deeply loved, by God so highly graced, as that narrow point of feeble green."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume III (1856), Part IV, Chapter XIV, Section 51 (italics in original).

Stanley Spencer, "Landscape, Cookham Dean" (c. 1939)

Wordsworth considers the subject in the following untitled poem.

This Lawn, a carpet all alive
With shadows flung from leaves -- to strive
     In dance, amid a press
Of sunshine, an apt emblem yields
Of Worldlings revelling in the fields
     Of strenuous idleness;

Less quick the stir when tide and breeze
Encounter, and to narrow seas
     Forbid a moment's rest;
The medley less when boreal Lights
Glance to and fro, like aery Sprites
     To feats of arms addrest!

Yet, spite of all this eager strife,
This ceaseless play, the genuine life
     That serves the stedfast hours,
Is in the grass beneath, that grows
Unheeded, and the mute repose
     Of sweetly-breathing flowers.

William Wordsworth, Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems (1835).

James Torrington Bell, "Carnoustie House" (1962)

Wordsworth's poem fits well with some further remarks by Ruskin:

"Observe, the peculiar characters of the grass, which adapt it especially for the service of man, are its apparent humility, and cheerfulness.  Its humility, in that it seems created only for lowest service, -- appointed to be trodden on, and fed upon.  Its cheerfulness, in that it seems to exult under all kinds of violence and suffering.  You roll it, and it is stronger the next day; you mow it, and it multiplies its shoots, as if it were grateful; you tread upon it, and it only sends up richer perfume.  Spring comes, and it rejoices with all the earth, -- glowing with variegated flame of flowers, -- waving in soft depth of fruitful strength.  Winter comes, and though it will not mock its fellow plants by growing then, it will not pine and mourn, and turn colourless and leafless as they.  It is always green; and is only the brighter and gayer for the hoar-frost."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XIV, Section 52 (italics in original).

A side-note:  given Ruskin's invention of the term "pathetic fallacy," it is interesting to find him describing the "humility" and "cheerfulness" of grass.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Nothing Was Ever Beautiful In Vain, Or All In Vain Was Good"

Christina Rossetti never ceases to surprise me.  Given that she wrote so many poems (about a thousand), you never know what you will come across when you open one of her collections.  In this respect, she resembles Thomas Hardy:  you can read their poetry for years, yet still come across undiscovered gems.

Thus, I recently stumbled upon the following poem by Rossetti.  It is one of those poems by her that leaves you wondering:  where did that come from?

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (c. 1939)

                  Buds and Babies

A million buds are born that never blow,
     That sweet with promise lift a pretty head
     To blush and wither on a barren bed
          And leave no fruit to show.

Sweet, unfulfilled.  Yet have I understood
     One joy, by their fragility made plain:
     Nothing was ever beautiful in vain,
          Or all in vain was good.

Christina Rossetti,  A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).  Rossetti uses "blow" (line 1) in a sense that has now mostly disappeared, but was commonly used in Romantic and Victorian poetry:  "to burst into flower; to blossom, bloom."  OED.

I suppose that an argument could be made that "Buds and Babies" is a conventional, sentimental Victorian poem.  Perhaps this is true of its subject matter and of its first stanza.  Perhaps.  But the second stanza is another matter entirely:  it is timeless and placeless, both in terms of its art and in terms of its content.

As is always the case with something this good, I hesitate to pick it apart for fear of destroying it.  But consider the setting apart of the lovely "Sweet, unfulfilled" at the beginning of the stanza.  Or consider the sound and rhythm of "by their fragility made plain."

And what are we to make of the closing lines?  Are they a mere truism?  A pious homily?  Perhaps I am simple-minded, but to me they come out of the depths and/or the heights of I know not where.  I am reminded of another line by Rossetti:  "Love hath a name of Death."  Paraphrase would be both futile and impertinent.  I will take the coward's way out and fall back on Wittgenstein:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

Stanley Spencer, "Poppies" (1938)

Monday, April 1, 2013

"For Once, Then, Something"

In "Bond and Free," which appeared in my previous post, Robert Frost considers the relative claims of Love and Thought (or, earth and stars).  I suggested that Frost may not view Love and Thought as an either/or proposition, despite the suggestion in the poem's final stanza that Love trumps Thought.

Frost often confounds our expectations.  He is not the cracker-barrel Yankee philosopher that he is often made out to be.  The best example of this is, I think, "The Road Not Taken."  The closing lines ("I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference") have been turned into a self-help exhortation.  In fact, the poem can be read as a rueful (and ironic) expression of regret at having chosen that road.

In the following poem, Frost goes beyond the earth and the stars to look below ground.  In doing so, he may give us a closer approximation of how he sees himself (and us).  The Frostian slyness is still present, but there is a bit of self-revelation as well.

John Nash, "Berkshire Woods"

               For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths -- and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out.  What was that whiteness?
Truth?  A pebble of quartz?  For once, then, something.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

I have noted on another occasion that Philip Larkin, who greatly admired Edward Thomas, has made one of the acutest observations about Thomas and his poetry.  I believe that this observation applies to Frost and his poetry as well:

"What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse."

Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985 (edited by Anthony Thwaite) (Faber and Faber 1992).

John Nash, "A Path Through Trees" (c. 1915)