Friday, January 31, 2014

Stepping Stones

As I have remarked before (stating the obvious, I realize), one of the pleasures of reading poetry is the way in which one poem leads to another. One can take a long journey through the ages and across the globe by letting one poem hand you off to the next poem.  But it will not be a straight-lined journey, for you will find yourself heading off on diverting detours.  Thus, for instance, the following untitled poem by A. E. Housman carries echoes of at least two other poems.

The night is freezing fast,
     To-morrow comes December;
          And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
     And chiefly I remember
          How Dick would hate the cold.

Fall, winter, fall; for he,
     Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
          Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
     His overcoat for ever,
          And wears the turning globe.

A. E. Housman, Poem XX, Last Poems (1922).

"Winterfall" (line 3) does not appear in The Oxford English Dictionary.  A lovely word.

William Anstice Brown, "Autumn" (1981)

The second stanza of Housman's poem brings to mind a poem by William Wordsworth (of which I have sung the praises on more than one occasion).

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).

Several commentators have noticed the parallels between the two poems, but no one knows whether Housman's echo of Wordsworth was conscious or subconscious.

William Anstice Brown, "Spring" (1981)

And, in a different direction, "fall, winter, fall" in the first line of the second stanza leads us to this:

Fall leaves fall die flowers away
Lengthen night and shorten day
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day

Emily Bronte, The Complete Poems (edited by Janet Gezari) (Penguin 1992).  The poem is unpunctuated, as it appears in Bronte's manuscript.  It was not published during her lifetime.

Whether Housman used "fall leaves fall" as a model for "fall, winter, fall" we do not know.  It is likely mere happenstance, which is just as well:  I am not suggesting that somebody should write an academic paper on "The Influence of Emily Bronte on A. E. Housman."  God forbid!  No, I am simply suggesting that, for purposes of our poetic journey, these sorts of serendipities can carry us from one place to the next.

William Anstice Brown, "In Purley Meadow, Sherborne, Dorset" (1979)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"And Went With Half My Life About My Ways"

A. E. Housman had one great love in his life, and that love was unrequited. The object of his affection was Moses Jackson, one of his roommates at Oxford.  It has been suggested that two crucial periods in Housman's relationship with Jackson set off the widely-separated flurries of writing that produced the poems contained in the two collections that Housman published during his lifetime.  In 1885, Housman realized that Jackson was only interested in friendship; in 1887, Jackson moved to India; in 1889, Jackson was married.  A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896.

In 1911, Jackson emigrated to Canada, never to return to England.  Early in 1922, Housman learned that Jackson was dying of cancer.  Housman then rushed to complete the poems that were included in his final collection, Last Poems, which was published in October of 1922.  On the day of its publication, Housman sent a copy of the volume to Jackson, who was now approaching death.

George Price Boyce, "Tithe Barn" (c. 1878)  

Jackson responded to the gift of the book by writing a letter to Housman that adopted the jocular, matey tone the two took with each other.  In the letter, Jackson, in passing, mentioned the dire state of his finances, with no intention to solicit assistance from Housman.  Housman received the letter on January 1, 1923, and replied on January 4.  In his reply, he wrote:

"On the copies of the new book [Last Poems] already sold in England there will be due to me royalties of about 500 Pounds.  As I cannot be bothered with investments, this will go to swell my already swollen balance at the bank unless you will relieve me of it.  Why not rise superior to the natural disagreeableness of your character and behave nicely for once in a way to a fellow who thinks more of you than anything in the world?  You are largely responsible for my writing poetry and you ought to take the consequences."

Jackson died on January 14, before Housman's letter arrived in Canada.

On January 17, Housman wrote a letter to A. W. Pollard, a mutual acquaintance, informing him of Jackson's death.  The letter closes as follows:

"I had a letter from him on New Year's Day, which he ended by saying 'goodbye.'  Now I can die myself:  I could not have borne to leave him behind me in a world where anything might happen to him."

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

Heart-rending stuff, I'd say.  Over the years, Housman addressed these circumstances in his poetry by alternating between stoic resignation (although Housman vehemently denied that he was a Stoic in the Greek and Roman philosophical sense) and despair.  Here, then, is resignation in despair:

I promise nothing:  friends will part;
     All things may end, for all began;
And truth and singleness of heart
     Are mortal even as is man.

But this unlucky love should last
     When answered passions thin to air;
Eternal fate so deep has cast
     Its sure foundation of despair.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (edited by Laurence Housman) (1936).

I suspect that quite a few of us can sympathize with this approach to the situation, given the available options.  There may be a bit of romantic idealization (self-deception?) in the mix, but it beats self-destruction.  And, after all, who knows?  We're talking about love.  None of us is in a position to second-guess the emotions of another human being when it comes to love.  In this regard, I agree with Philip Larkin:

"Housman is the poet of unhappiness; no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently. . . . If unhappiness was the key to poetry, the key to unhappiness was Moses Jackson.  It would be tempting to call this neurosis, but there is a shorter word.  For as Housman himself said, anyone who thinks he has loved more than one person has simply never really loved at all."

Philip Larkin, "All Right When You Knew Him," in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), pages 264-265.

George Price Boyce
"Newcastle from the Rabbit Banks, Gateshead-on-Tyne" (1864)

And then there is this.  Ah, this is the one that breaks your heart.  It was published after Housman's death.

He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
     He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder
     And went with half my life about my ways.

A. E. Housman, "Additional Poems," in The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman (edited by Laurence Housman) (1939).

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Two of my recent posts have featured poems by Callimachus, who wrote in Greek in the third century B. C. (to the best of our knowledge).  For all of their antiquity, Callimachus's poems are not outdated.  Although we are quite enamored with our modern selves, and have deceived ourselves into believing that humanity has "progressed" in the past few millennia, nothing has changed when it comes to the human heart (for good or evil).

With respect to Greek sepulchral epigrams in particular (for instance, Callimachus's epigrams on a dead shipwrecked sailor and a dead poet), the following passage is worth considering:

"[The sepulchral epigrams of The Greek Anthology] have such a natural dignity and delicacy of feeling about death that no change of nationality or even religion can estrange us wholly from them.  What else is the achievement of Greece than this, that her people thought beautifully and justly, and expressed their thought in a most sure-fingered adequacy of form, about matters which flesh and blood can never cease to be concerned with, all apparent revolutions and progresses of civilization notwithstanding?  About all such bottomless contrasts as the difference between town and country, night and day, sea and land, youth and age, life and death, nobody writes the better for all the development of human ingenuity."

J. S. Phillimore, "Crinagoras of Mitylene," The Dublin Review, Volume CXXXIX (1906), page 82.

Yes, "human ingenuity" (exalted -- nay, worshipped -- in our time; see, e.g., science and technology) and "humanity" are two entirely different things, aren't they?

Jan Beerstraten (1622-1666), "A Winter Landscape near Castle Buren"

  To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
     And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
     The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
     Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
     Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
     And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
     And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer?  Like a wind
     That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
     Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
     Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
     I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
     And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
     To greet you.  You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker, Forty-Two Poems (1911).  "Old Maeonides the blind" (line 15) refers to Homer, who is said to have been from Maeonia (Lydia), and was thus a Maeonide.

Although the poem is directed "to a poet" and although it speaks in terms of "our sweet English tongue," I think that it can apply as well to readers of poetry, in any tongue.

Jan Beerstraten, "Skating Scene"

On a broader note:

                                    To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

"Other, less difficult, media."  Sounds about right.  It has happened more quickly than MacNeice might have imagined.  And, although he never experienced ebooks, Kindles, and iPads, MacNeice was inadvertently prescient in one particular:  "when books have all seized up like the books in graveyards."  (I apologize to those who swear by such contraptions. Personally, I require the feel of paper and the turning of pages.  Except for blogs, of course!)

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Still Are Thy Pleasant Voices, Thy Nightingales, Awake"

Considering that the odds of writing a good poem are long (even for an accomplished poet), being remembered for a single poem is not a bad thing.  Such is the case of William Johnson Cory (1823-1892).  In Cory's case the single poem is the translation of an epigram by Callimachus.  But Cory's version of Callimachus's poem is so fine that he has transformed it into his own -- while remaining true to the spirit of the original.


They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

William Johnson Cory, Ionica (1891).

Well, on the strength of this poem, I believe we can say of William Johnson Cory himself:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake . . ."

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), "The Artist in the Campagna" (c. 1931)

Here is a prose version of Callimachus's poem:

"One told me of thy death, Heraclitus, and it moved me to tears, when I remembered how often the sun set on our talking.  And thou, my Halicarnassian friend, liest somewhere, gone long long ago to dust; but they live, thy Nightingales, on which Hades who seizeth all shall not lay his hand."

Callimachus (translated by W. R. Paton), in W. R. Paton, The Greek Anthology (Heinemann 1919).  The "Heraclitus" referred to in the epigram is not the well-known Greek philosopher, but a poet from Halicarnassus. According to Paton, "Nightingales" is "the title of a book of poems."

For purposes of comparison, here are two other verse translations:

They told me, Heraclitus, thou wert dead;
And then I thought, and tears thereon did shed,
How oft we two talk'd down the sun:  but thou,
Halicarnassian guest! art ashes now.
Yet live thy nightingales of song; on those
Forgetfulness her hand shall ne'er impose.

Callimachus (translated by Henry Nelson Coleridge), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849).

One told me, Heraclitus, of thy fate,
Which brought the tear into my eye to think
How oft we two, conversing long and late,
Have seen the sun into his chamber sink;
But that is past and gone, and somewhere thou,
Halicarnassian guest! art ashes now.
Yet live those nightingales of thine; on these
The all-grasping hand of Hades will not seize.

Callimachus (translated by Charles Neaves), in Charles Neaves, The Greek Anthology (1874).

Alan Sorrell, "Sudanese Express Passing Abu Simbel"

The prose translation and the two verse translations contain the same elements as Cory's version:  tears of sorrow; a memory of friends talking until the sun went down; ashes/dust; poems as nightingales; Death/Hades/forgetfulness.  But they cannot hold a candle to what Cory has pulled off.  Because I am a sworn enemy of explication and explanation, I will say only this:  Cory has written a lovely poem.  A poem which, once read, cannot be forgotten.  Why this is so is what makes poetry the wondrous thing it is.  We should leave it at that.  Definitions destroy.

Alan Sorrell, "Train in a Landscape"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"The Hidden Law"

W. H. Auden wrote his fair share of obscure poems (at any rate, they are obscure to me).  But they sound good, so I'm willing to give him some leeway.  The following poem falls into this category.  I have a vague notion of what he is getting at:  I suspect he has in mind some sort of theological and/or natural order that underlies all that we do (whether we know it or not).

Although Auden approaches these matters from a Christian perspective, no religion or philosophy or culture has a monopoly on this sort of notion. For instance, the same sort of poem written by a Chinese T'ang Dynasty poet or by a Japanese haiku poet from the time of Basho would immediately bring to mind elements of Taoism and/or Buddhism.  And I have no doubt that further examples could be drawn from other cultures and eras as well.

W. Floyd Nash, "Canonbury Tower" (1942)

          The Hidden Law

The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.

It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And legal definitions mar
          The Hidden Law.

Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die:
When we escape It in a car,
When we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we're punished by
          The Hidden Law.

W. H. Auden, Collected Poems (Random House 1976).

The poem was written in 1940.  The word "legal" in line 8 represents a later revision by Auden.  He originally used the word "verbal."  Thus:  "And verbal definitions mar/The Hidden Law."

Charles Tunnicliffe, "Sitting Hare" (1937)

In the absence of a definitive explanation of what The Hidden Law is, I will offer the final paragraph of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet.  Artur Sammler is standing in a hospital morgue beside the body of his beloved nephew Elya Gruner.

"Sammler in a mental whisper said, 'Well, Elya.  Well, well, Elya.'  And then in the same way he said, 'Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him.  At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be.  He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet -- through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding -- he did meet the terms of his contract.  The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.  As I know mine.  As all know.  For that is the truth of it -- that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.'"

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet (Viking Press 1970).

I first read this paragraph 30-odd years ago.  It still moves me each time I read it.

W. N. Narbett, "Woodlands in May" (c. 1967)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"He Too, A Restless Sea-Bird, Roams The Wave"

My previous post contained a poem by Li Po in which he likened himself to a gull suspended between earth and sky:  "Drifting, what am I like?/A gull between earth and sky" or "Floating on the wind,/What do I resemble?/A solitary gull/Between the heavens and the earth" or "Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness? /Sky and earth and one sandy gull" (depending upon the translator).

Half a world away, and about 12 centuries earlier, the Greek poet Callimachus (c. 310 BC- c. 240 BC) expressed similar thoughts about our human lot.

Stranger, whoe'er thou art, found stranded here,
O'er thee Leontichus heaped up this grave,
Whilst at his own hard lot he dropped a tear:
He too, a restless sea-bird, roams the wave.

Callimachus (translated by Henry Wellesley), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

For purposes of reference, a prose translation from a 20th-century edition of The Greek Anthology may be helpful:

"Who art thou, shipwrecked stranger?  Leontichus found thee here dead on the beach, and buried thee in this tomb, weeping for his own uncertain life; for he also rests not, but travels over the sea like a gull."

Callimachus (translated by W. R. Paton), in W. R. Paton, The Greek Anthology, Volume II (Heinemann 1919).

Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

Here is another versified translation of Callimachus's poem:

Whoe'er thou art that on the desert shores,
     Leontichus has found, he lays to rest;
While his own life of peril he deplores,
     With sweet repose, oh never, never blest:
Condemn'd to travel o'er the watry plain,
And, like the corm'rant, rove about the main.

Callimachus (translated by William Todd), in William Todd, The Hymns of Callimachus, Translated from the Greek into English Verse (1755).

I am particularly fond of "with sweet repose, oh never, never blest."  I suspect this takes some liberty with the Greek original, but it is very fine nonetheless.

Samuel Bough, "Dutch Lugger Entering the Thames"

Wellesley limits himself to four lines; Todd takes six lines; the following version expands to eight lines.

Whoe'er thou art in tempests lost
And driv'n ashore by surges tost,
Leontichus laments thy doom,
And lays thy body in this tomb;
But mourns his own unhappy state,
Expos'd, like thee, to certain fate;
Expos'd to plow the wat'ry plain,
Or, like a sea-mew, skim the main.

Callimachus (translated by H. W. Tytler), in H. W. Tytler, The Works of Callimachus, Translated into English Verse (1793).

The English versifications by Wellesley, Todd, and Tytler no doubt contain some flourishes that are at variance with the Greek original.  Still, I cannot say that this is to be regretted.  (Easy for me to say, with my absence of Greek!)  I think that all three versions are lovely, and I find it difficult to choose a favorite between them.

An aside:  in a footnote to his translation, Tytler provides some cultural background to the setting of the poem:

"As the ancients imagined no misfortune so great as remaining unburied after death, so no pious act was reckoned equal to that of bestowing the rites of sepulture on a dead body when found by accident. Because it was the common opinion that the souls of the deceased were obliged to wander from place to place, upon the banks of the river Styx, till their bodies had received the funeral rites."

Ibid, page 267.

Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running Into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)

Monday, January 13, 2014

"A Gull Between Earth And Sky"

Nearly all of the best-known T'ang Dynasty (618-907) poets were civil servants.  But T'ang Dynasty civil servants differed a bit from our modern civil servants.  For instance, the rigorous civil service examinations required applicants to demonstrate both an extensive knowledge of poetry and an ability to write it well (in accordance with the elaborate and strict rules of traditional Chinese prosody).  I have never looked into the matter, but I'm fairly certain that, in the United States, knowledge of -- and proficiency in writing -- poetry are not prerequisites for governmental employment.  I can't speak for other countries.

The T'ang Dynasty poets were usually prefects who spent their lives moving from one provincial city to another.  The changes in position were often the result of political vicissitudes: falling out of favor for known or unknown reasons.  A transfer was usually akin to an exile.  Therefore, a large number of T'ang poems are either about sailing the rivers of China from one post to another or about bidding farewell to friends and fellow poets: either those the poet is leaving or those who are departing from the poet.

Not surprisingly, the endless traveling and leave-taking takes on a philosophical cast when it comes to the writing of poems:  one begins to see one's life as a journey and, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, "a continual farewell."  Elements of Taoism and Buddhism fit naturally into this picture as well.

David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "A Castle on Mull"

The following poem is by Tu Fu (712-770), who is one of the four great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (the others, as I have noted before, are Li Po, Wang Wei, and Po Chu-i).

     A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts

Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.

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

David Young Cameron, "Morvern and Mull"

  Thoughts while Traveling at Night

Light breeze on the fine grass.
I stand alone at the mast.

Stars lean on the vast wild plain.
Moon bobs in the Great River's spate.

Letters have brought no fame.
Office?  Too old to obtain.

Drifting, what am I like?
A gull between earth and sky.

Tu Fu (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).

David Young Cameron, "A Castle by the North Sea" (1924)

     Traveling at Night

Slender grasses,
A breeze on the riverbank,
The tall mast
Of my boat alone in the night.

Stars hang
All across a vast plain.
The moon leaps
In the Great River's flow.

My writing
Has not made a name for me,
And now, due to age and illness,
I must quit my official post.

Floating on the wind,
What do I resemble?
A solitary gull
Between the heavens and the earth.

Tu Fu (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Doubleday 1987).

The poem is much more than the lament of a disappointed poet-bureaucrat: it is about the journey all of us are in the midst of.  I am aware that the idea of "life as a journey" has become a commonplace, and thus may be suspect, especially in light of the many trivial uses to which it is put in our demented age.  But that does not mean that we have to be ironic about it, or discard it. If an idea has an element of human truth in it, we should not let it be destroyed simply because it has been ill-used.

David Young Cameron, "The Summer Isles" (1935)

Friday, January 10, 2014


First, a poem written around 1,200 or so years ago:

                           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.

Liu Tsung-Yuan (773-819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor and translator), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

There are many things to like about this poem, but I'd like to consider just two of them.  First, note the transition from the vast white world of the first two lines ("a thousand hills . . . ten thousand paths") to the single soul alone in the snow of the final two lines.  Second, the silent stillness of the scene is palpable and paramount; yet, in the original Chinese text (as well as in Burton Watson's faithful translation) descriptive words such as "silence" or "quiet" or "stillness" do not appear.  All is accomplished through implication.  Less is more.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Bizen Ukazan"

At one point in his writing life, Wallace Stevens was influenced by Chinese poetry.  The poem that best reflects this influence is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."  The opening and closing sections of the poem are evocatively reminiscent of the atmosphere of "River Snow."  Here is Section I in its entirety:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

And here is the whole of Section XIII:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

Stevens was too exuberant to employ this sort of style on a regular basis. But these examples demonstrate that he understood quite well the virtues of traditional Chinese poetry.  This is particularly true of Section I.  In Section XIII, the subjective begins to sneak in:  "It was evening all afternoon./It was snowing/And it was going to snow" is classic (and lovely) Stevens, but would seem slightly out of place in a T'ang Dynasty poem, I think.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Traveller in Snow"

Finally, an untitled poem by Michael Longley seems at home here:

Between now and one week ago when the snow fell, a bird landed
Where they lie, and made cozier and whiter the white patchwork:
And where I imagine her ashes settling on to his collarbone,
The tracks vanish between wing-tips symmetrically printed.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Secker & Warburg 1991).

The poem is the epigraph to Gorse Fires.  It follows this dedication: "In Memory Of My Parents."

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"Everything Turns Away Quite Leisurely From The Disaster"

It's odd how certain poems prove to be the ones that inspire a youthful interest in poetry.  The following poem is one of the poems that did it for me.  My memory fails me, but I believe that I first encountered it in my final years of high school or in my first year of college.  I wouldn't have come upon it on my own:  in those days I was more interested in fiction, so I discovered it in a now-forgotten anthology assigned in class.

I do remember what attracted me to it:  the words, needless to say, but, more particularly, the combination of thought and feeling articulated in that fashion.  I know that this reaction is blindingly obvious, but the experience was new to me at the time.  I soon realized (I hereby profusely apologize to those who swear by fiction) that, in the long run, poems had novels and short stories beat hands down.

I hadn't read the poem for years, so I recently revisited it.  And, although our youthful passions can never by viscerally reproduced, I did feel a stir --   I still know (and feel) why it moved me.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder
"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (c. 1558)

                    Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters:  how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance:  how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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

"Musee des Beaux Arts" refers to the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels.  Auden wrote the poem in Brussels in December of 1938.  Auden uses the spelling "Breughel" (line 14), but "Brueghel" or "Bruegel" are the more commonly-used spellings.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (copy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger)
"Massacre of the Innocents" (c. 1605-1610) 

Commentators have suggested that the images contained in the first stanza of the poem may have their source in other paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger that are part of the collection of the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, or that are located in other museums.  Max Bluestone, "The Iconographic Sources of Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'," Modern Language Notes, Volume LXXVI (1961); Arthur Kinney, "Auden, Bruegel, and 'Musee des Beaux Arts'," College English, Volume 24, Number 7 (1963).  This may be so, but the quality Auden describes is typical of many other paintings by Brueghel the Elder, Brueghel the Younger, and other artists of the time.

Consider the following passage about life in the late Middle Ages :

"Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger then than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise.  The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout.

From the continuing contrast, from the colorful forms with which every phenomenon forced itself on the mind, daily life received the kind of impulses and passionate suggestions that is revealed in the vacillating moods of unrefined exuberance, sudden cruelty, and tender emotions between which the life of the medieval city was suspended."

Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (translated by Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch) (University of Chicago Press 1996).

Although Huizinga's observations may seem to contradict what Auden is getting at, I think they are in fact complementary to (and implied in) Auden's thoughts: what stands out in the paintings (for me, at least) is a sense of vivid and vigorous life.  Yes, people may be going about their business as momentous events occur around the corner or behind their backs, but everything in the paintings seems to be charged with energy -- not electronic, once- or twice-removed modern energy (ironic and jaded), but the sort of "passionate" and "exuberant" energy described by Huizinga. I'm not suggesting that it was a lost Paradise.  But it was different.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Numbering at Bethlehem" (c. 1566)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"Synonyms For Joy"

Near the end of his life, W. H. Auden wrote the following poem:

He has never seen God,
but, once or twice, he believes
he has heard him.

W. H. Auden, Collected Poems (edited by Edward Mendelson) (1991).

We have no way of knowing what Auden may have heard.  Voices?  Music? Thunder?  Or does he have something more theologically recondite in mind?  This is purely speculation on my part, but, on the basis of his poetry, I am putting in a vote for bird-song.

Gilbert Spencer, "Little Milton near Garsington" (1926)

                  Short Ode to the Cuckoo

No one now imagines you answer idle questions
-- How long shall I live?  How long remain single?
Will butter be cheaper? -- nor does your shout make
        husbands uneasy.

Compared with arias by the great performers
such as the merle, your two-note act is kid-stuff:
our most hardened crooks are sincerely shocked by
        your nesting habits.

Science, Aesthetics, Ethics, may huff and puff but they
cannot extinguish your magic:  you marvel
the commuter as you wondered the savage.
        Hence, in my diary,

where I normally enter nothing but social
engagements and, lately, the death of friends, I
scribble year after year when I first hear you,
        of a holy moment.

W. H. Auden, Epistle to a Godson (1972).

"Merle" (line 6) is another name for the blackbird.  The word has its origins in French, and the OED states that it is found "frequently in Scottish poetry from the 15th century onwards."  The references to the cuckoo's "shout" making "husbands uneasy" (lines 3 and 4) and to its "nesting habits" (line 8) refer to the tendency of some species of cuckoo to take over the nests of other birds.

Gilbert Spencer, "Tarrington Court, Herefordshire" (1961)


Trying to understand the words
     Uttered on all sides by birds,
I recognize in what I hear
     Noises that betoken fear.

Though some of them, I'm certain, must
     Stand for rage, bravado, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
     Sound like synonyms for joy.

W. H. Auden, City Without Walls (1969).

The two poems call to mind Auden's "Their Lonely Betters," which has appeared here previously.  This is its closing stanza:

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.

Gilbert Spencer, "The Terrace" (1927)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"The Bells Ring Out, The Year Is Born"

Yesterday afternoon, in a United States Post Office, I heard Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis being played over the lobby loudspeakers.  I don't know what to make of this.

For New Year's Day, I had thought to post Ernest Dowson's "The Old Year," which contains the lines "There you lie, with your sick, scarred visage,/Who were once so fair to see."  And so on.  I intended to pair it with a poem by John Clare which begins thus:  "The Old Year's gone away/To nothingness and night."

But the miraculous appearance of the Fantasia in governmental space -- a Post Office lobby, of all places -- has  provoked a change of plan. Mourning the departed year is no longer appropriate.  The world has changed overnight.  Well, I shouldn't get too carried away.  Still . . .

Charles Napier Hemy, "Pilchards" (1897)

So, rather than "The Old Year," we shall shift to "The New Year."

                 The New Year

The bells ring out, the year is born,
And shall we hope or shall we mourn?
Shall we embrace the young, new year,
Or shall we turn back lingering eyes,
          To the low bier,
Where in his pall the old year lies?

What shall he bring to men who weep,
To men who laugh and men who sleep,
So very weary of the sun?
Shall one of these men ever gain,
          Ah even one,
His heart's desire nor find it vain?

Hope not, fear not:  he only bears
The message of the elder years!
A little love, a little pain!
To some a sweet or idle dream,
          To some again,
The sleep wherein we do not dream.

Ah sweet, my child, and yet mine own,
Though I must wander on alone,
Love me a little, clasp me still
With thy soft hands, and I will bear
          For good or ill
The burden of the coming year.

Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003).

Yes, I realize that the poem does not consist of unalloyed good cheer, but, after all, this is Ernest Dowson and he was writing in the Nineties.  Hence, a bit of wistful, death-haunted melancholy is mandatory.  "They are not long, the weeping and the laughter . . . Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."  Et cetera.  We ought to give him credit for trying.

William Shackleton, "The Mackerel Nets" (1913)

     To wake, alive, in this world,
What happiness!
     Winter rain.

Shoha (18th century) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 217.

Edwin Hayes, "Sunset at Sea: From Harlyn Bay, Cornwall" (1894)