Wednesday, August 24, 2016


We humans make a great deal of racket, don't we?  Talking.  Always talking.  And to what end?  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my favorite statements about the mystery of existence:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).  Here is an alternative translation (by C. K Ogden):  "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This sort of statement befuddles moderns, for they have been taught to believe that everything is ultimately subject to explanation.  This belief (and it is a belief, not a fact) accounts for most of the noise around us:  a never-ending, purportedly "rational" discourse about the causes and effects of the World's minute particulars, which are often perceived as "problems" or "crises" that need to be solved.  Words and yet more words.

Confronted with this barren and tedious state of affairs, my response is to keep my mouth shut.  Why add to the clamor?

But perhaps there is another path available.  Not utter silence, but a type of communication that takes inspiration from the World around us -- the real World.

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

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

The World around us never stops singing.  But it does so in a reserved and seemly fashion.  Without grievance.  With no agenda to pursue.  I would rather attend to the World's music than to the human welter of words, words, words.  With one exception, of course:  the words of poets.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), "The Small Meadows in Spring" (1880)

As one might expect, our mortality enters into this.  Time is short.  The final two lines of L. A. G. Strong's poem "Garramor Bay," which appeared in my previous post, come to mind:  "O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,/Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Imagine the life of a cicada.  All those years biding your time in the dark earth.  Then one day, suddenly, there you are:  out in the bright blue and green.  What else would you wish to do but sing?

Knowing what we know -- that they will live but a few short weeks above ground -- their singing takes on a sad and wistful aspect.  How much do they know?  "Nor dread nor hope attend/A dying animal."  (W. B. Yeats, "Death.")  Is this true?  I'm not in a position to say.

     Nothing intimates,
In the voice of the cicada,
     How soon it will die.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 234.

I once lived in Japan for a year, and I was astonished when I first heard the sound of the cicadas in summer:  a shrill, piercing vibration, a chorus consisting of a thousand dentist's drills, magnified and echoing.  The Japanese word for cicada is semi (pronounced "se-mee").  One of Bashō's poems captures perfectly the intensity of the sound of the semi in summer and early autumn:

     The silence;
The voice of the cicadas
     Penetrates the rocks.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 229.

That's it exactly:  a fantastic and breathtaking drilling-down.  But here's the wonderful thing:  my initial astonishment at the screeching chorus soon turned to fondness.  From the outside, the semi is an unlovely creature, but, as singers, they are soothing and endearing.  What's more, we and the semi share the same destiny:  a short time spent above ground. "Make music, my heart, before the long silence."

Alfred Sisley, "A Turn of the River Loing, Summer" (1896)

The songs that emanate from the World come in many forms, and from unexpected quarters.  A fragment of blank verse by William Wordsworth, which appeared in my post of July 31, seems apt in this context:

                                Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 340.

Wordsworth expressed his concern about our having "no sympathy" with nature, or with "such things as have no power to hold/Articulate language," in 1798.  What can we say of the state of that "sympathy" now, more than two centuries later?

In Japan, in the late 17th century, a poet could write this:

     With what voice,
And what song would you sing, spider,
     In this autumn breeze?

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 85.

A vast, empty space of "reason" and "enlightenment" lies between us and the World as Bashō and Wordsworth experienced it.  But, fortunately, that World has not vanished.  It is a World in which one can still imagine a spider singing.

Alfred Sisley, "The Path to the Old Ferry at By" (1880)

As I have noted here in the past, the choice is ours to make:  we can live in an enchanted World or in a disenchanted World.  Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure that this is a matter of choice.  One feels that there is something immanent within, beneath, and behind the beautiful surface of the World or one does not.  I do not say this in a judgmental fashion.  Our emotional sense of how we fit into the World is a wholly mysterious thing, and I am only qualified to speak of how the World feels to me.

It will come as no surprise that I opt for an enchanted, singing World. Skylarks and cicadas and spiders.  And a hototogisu beneath the moon.

     What!  Was it the moon
That cried?
     A hototogisu!

Baishitsu (1768-1852) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 167.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.  The word is pronounced thus:  hō-tō-tō-gē (with a hard g) -sū.

The following passage appears in a discussion by Gilbert Murray of the Greek dramatist Euripides.  It eloquently articulates one way of seeing the World.

"Reason is great, but it is not everything.  There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life."

Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Heinemann 1897), page 272.

I know next to nothing.  But it seems to me that we ought not to limit our potential sources of illumination and revelation.  Here is yet another voice from the World:

All was grey dust save a little fire
and the oriole said:  Who are you?  What are you doing?
Nothing was moving yet to its end.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Michael Hamburger), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Extracts from the Notebooks 1954-1967 (New Directions 1977), page 24.  The poem is untitled.

Alfred Sisley, "Flood at Moret" (1879)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Stroll

A poem that catches our fancy is likely to stay with us our entire life.  If the poem moves us sufficiently, we may discover that we have committed it (or at least part of it) to memory without even knowing we have done so.  At different times in our life, a stray phrase from the poem may return to us out of the blue.  We may think that this is mere happenstance, a quirk of memory.  But I suspect that more is afoot.

This past week, the title of a poem resurfaced in my mind.  I have no idea why.  But I returned to the poem.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Dun Emer Press 1903).

I read this poem for the first time at the age of 19 or 20, when I was taking a course in college titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot."  I was quite smitten with Yeats at the time.  When I returned to the poem this week, I discovered that I remain quite smitten with Yeats -- the Yeats of the 1890s and early 1900s and of the Celtic Twilight.  I am aware of his faults as a person (vain, supercilious, et cetera), but I am willing to let all of that pass:  I cannot forget -- and I am ever grateful for -- the scores of beautiful lines he wrote when he was a young man.  Perhaps I have not changed a whit emotionally in the intervening years:  "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" moves me as much today as it did on the day I first read it.

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Winter Scene, Provençal" (1938)

The poems we love begin to accumulate over the years.  (Please bear with me:  I intend to contemplate the obvious in this post.)  Our personal anthology of poems in turn leads to one of the many wonders of poetry:  one remembered poem often carries us on to another, and, before we know it, we are out for a stroll.

Thus, reading "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," I was reminded that Yeats is in fact one of my beloved poets of the 1890s.  This brought Ernest Dowson to mind, who, along with Yeats, was a member of the Rhymers' Club in London in the Nineties.  "All that's beautiful drifts away/Like the waters" led me seamlessly to this:

          Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                 vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The source of the title is line 15 of Ode 4, Book I, of Horace's Odes.  The line may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  An alternative translation is:  "the brief sum of life does not allow us to start on long hopes."  Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes (translated by David West) (Oxford University Press 1997).

The poem has appeared here on more than one occasion, but I never tire of revisiting it.  Encountering it in conjunction with "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" broadens and deepens both poems.  I realize that not everyone is fond of the poets of the Nineties.  But this is undeniable: they wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Paul Methuen (1886-1974), "Bathampton"

As you have no doubt noticed, my incipient stroll had by now developed a theme of sorts:  transience.  But my stroll was a leisurely amble, not a purposeful walk with a specific destination in mind.  Hence, I was content to spend a day with Yeats's old, old men, and to spend the following day in Dowson's misty dream.

Although a great deal of unread poetry lies before me, hurrying through it would be antithetical to the essential character of poetry:  a poem asks us to pause and pay attention to the World, and to our existence within the World.  Reading a poem should be an act of repose and reflection, not a task to be completed.  Knowing that my stroll would resume, I waited.  On the next day, this floated up:

                              Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Yes, "transience" had definitely become the theme of my stroll.  Strong was a mid-20th century English "man of letters," a writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and literary criticism.  However, "Garramor Bay" has that wistful, death-haunted 1890s feel to it, particularly the final two lines, which sound as though they could have been written by Dowson or Yeats.

Ian Grant, "Chesire Mill" (1939)

Long-time readers of this blog may by now be familiar with one of my oft-repeated mantras:  It is the poem that matters, not the poet.  Each poem is a singular and sovereign act of creation.  Of course, few would dispute that W. B. Yeats wrote more fine poems than either Ernest Dowson or L. A. G. Strong.  But is each of Yeats's fine poems "better" than "Garramor Bay" or "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam"?  I think not.

We ought to be catholic in our search for Beauty and Truth.  We never know when and where we may happen upon them.  When I purchased a volume of Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems, I had no idea what I would find within it, but I was in search of Beauty and Truth.  I had a hunch they were there.  And, sure enough, I found them a few years ago when I came upon this untitled four-line poem:

Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (Chatto & Windus 1960).

These lines unaccountably reappeared the day after I read "Garramor Bay" this past week.  I immediately felt that my stroll was complete.

Paul Methuen, "Magnolia Soulangiana at Corsham"

Saturday, August 6, 2016


It is entirely possible -- and perfectly acceptable -- to live one's life without holding opinions on the political issues of the day.  As the years pass, I have been steadily throwing these sorts of opinions overboard, and I feel none the worse for having jettisoned them.

Mind you, I do hold some opinions.  For instance, it is my opinion that we should be kind to one another.  (Long-time readers of this blog have heard me quote Philip Larkin numerous times on this point:  "We should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.")  I am also of the opinion that it is rude to carry on cell phone conversations in public, particularly while waiting in lines at post offices and banks.  I confess that I favor dogs over cats.  (Although I have known and loved many wonderful cats.)  Further, it is my opinion that those who commit murder in the name of religion (any religion) are evil.  So, there you have it: I am not opinionless.

Granted, most of my opinions are in the nature of truisms.  (With the exception of my preference for dogs over cats, for which I beg the forbearance of those who prefer cats.)  But, as I have noted in the past, I am perfectly content to live my life in accordance with truisms, which are, after all, true.

                 Mute Opinion

I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

I understand the allure of constructing a well-ordered set of opinions.  The world can be a chaotic, horrific, and dispiriting place.  It can be comforting to believe that one's opinions are correct, and that the implementation of those opinions will lead to a better world.

But this is where problems arise.  A great number of people believe that holding the "correct" opinions is de facto evidence of one's personal virtue and morality.  More alarmingly, there is a disturbing totalitarian undercurrent in modern opinion-holding:  We are right.  You are wrong. And you had better adopt the correct opinions.  Or else.  Anyone who believes that totalitarian tendencies are limited to one side or the other of the political spectrum is deluding themselves.

But I mustn't rant.  I wish all opinion holders well, as long as they don't expect me to believe what they believe.  In any case, the end result of political opinion-holding amounts to a hill of beans.

                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 (Secker & Warburg 1941).

Yes, Humbug will for ever walk the lands in which you and I dwell, dear reader.  There will never be a dearth of snake oil salesmen, whether of the left, right, or center.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

Opinions on political issues are beliefs, not statements of reality.  In the wake of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment," belief in utopian political schemes has in large part replaced religious belief.  Political believers can be every bit as fervent as religious believers.  This is not a criticism of fervency.  Everyone is entitled to hold their own opinions.  But it is important to recognize the critical role that utopian political beliefs play in the lives of a large number of people.

Most political true believers are not aware that their opinions are the tenets of a religion.  Political religions are as rife with controversy as the early Christian church:  doctrinal disputations, denunciations, apostasies, and schisms abound.  Words are paramount, and are worshipped.  The niceties of creedal language are parsed in a fashion that rivals the labors of the Council of Nicaea.


Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "St Monance"

Holding opinions is a tiring and tiresome business.  Think of the amount of mental, emotional, and psychic energy that people expend on defending their own opinions and attacking those of others.

As for me, I am one of Hardy's "large-eyed few, and dumb."  And happily so.  I am content to remain mute.  There is a great deal to do.

              Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"