Sunday, March 26, 2017


My favorite poems from The Greek Anthology are the epitaphs and the elegies.  The best of them combine graceful, noble simplicity with deeply-felt, but restrained, emotion.  E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, which appeared in my previous post, prompted me to return to this lovely poem by Callimachus:

Their Crethis, with her prattle and her play,
The girls of Samos often miss to-day:
Their loved workmate, with flow of merry speech,
Here sleeps the sleep that comes to all and each.

Callimachus (c. 310 B.C. - c. 240 B. C.) (translated by A. H. Bullen), in      A. H. Bullen, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes (Sidgwick & Jackson 1921).

This four-line poem accomplishes something remarkable in a brief space: it captures the essence of Crethis, of the personality which made her belovèd among her friends; it articulates, in a non-histrionic fashion, the grief of those friends upon losing her; and, finally, it places all of this within a context which embraces each of us, and which reminds us of a reality, often avoided, that we all must come to terms with, sooner or later.

Crethis, young prattler, full of graceful play,
Vainly the maids of Samos seek all day;
Cheerfullest workmate; ever talking; -- she
Sleeps here, -- that sleep, from which none born can flee.

Callimachus (translated by "F. H."), in The Classical Journal, Volume XXXIII (March and June, 1826), page 9.

Because I have no knowledge of Greek, I am not qualified to opine on the accuracy and fitness of the three translations that appear here.  I will only note that, despite the differences in the English words chosen by each of the translators, the emotional tenor of all three versions is quite consistent: we feel the charming vivacity of Crethis, and we also feel the aching and breathless sense of absence when a bright life is cut short.

The Samian maidens oft regret their friend,
     Sweet Crethis, full of play and cheer,
     Whose gossip lightened toil.  But here
She sleeps the sleep they all will sleep at end.

Callimachus (translated by Edward Cook), in Edward Cook, "The Charm of The Greek Anthology," More Literary Recreations (Macmillan 1919), page 317.

Algernon Cecil Newton (1880-1968), "The Avenue" (1944)

"All poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  Edward Thomas makes this suggestion at the end of a paragraph in which, discussing the unique power of poetry, he states:  "If what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death. . . [Poetry] is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), pages 86-87.

I think that these are wonderful, and true, observations.  But might it not also be said that all poems are elegies?  This may be a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other:  an elegy is an expression of love (a greater or a lesser love, depending upon the nature of the relationship between the elegist and the departed).  There are various types and degrees of love, and the potential objects of our love are innumerable.  But what all love has in common is this:  the belovèd may leave us.  Hence, love poems.  Hence, elegies.  Edward Thomas again:  "First known when lost."

                           The Evening Star
     in memory of Catherine Mercer, 1994-96

The day we buried your two years and two months
So many crocuses and snowdrops came out for you
I tried to isolate from those galaxies one flower:
A snowdrop appeared in the sky at dayligone,

The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram
Which brings back everything that shiny daybreak
Scatters, which brings the sheep and brings the goat
And brings the wean back home to her mammy.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).  In a note, Longley explains that "dayligone" (line 4) is a "Scots (or Ulster Scots)" word which means "twilight, dusk."  Ibid, page 68.

"The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram" likely refers to a two-line fragment by Sappho, which may be translated into prose as follows: "Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother."  Sappho (translated by Henry Thornton Wharton), in Henry Thornton Wharton, Sappho:  Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation (David Stott 1887), page 131.

In Greek mythology, Hesperus (Venus) is the evening star.  Lord Byron adapts Sappho's lines, and links them to Hesperus, in Book III, Stanza 107, of Don Juan:

O Hesperus!  thou bringest all good things --
     Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
     The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer;
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
     Whate'er our household gods protect of dear,
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to the mother's breast.

A. E. Housman also incorporates the spirit of Sappho's lines (and Hesperus) into the third stanza of "Epithalamium":

     Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).

Algernon Cecil Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

One  afternoon this past week, a heavy rain squall passed through about fifteen minutes before I headed out for my daily walk.  My course took me through a long avenue of trees.  By then, the sky had mostly cleared, and the green fields and bare trees glowed in the sunshine.

Wide puddles left by the just-departed storm ran continuously along both sides of the asphalt lane down which I walked.  As I have noted here in the past, to see the World reflected in a puddle, however small, is a wondrous thing.  But this was a replicated World of an entirely different magnitude: for two hundred yards or so the blue sky, the passing white clouds, and the intricate empty branches of the trees accompanied me, reflected in two bright ribbons of water.

As I walked, paused to gaze, and then walked on again, I was aware of the evanescence of the clear and brilliant World laid out at my feet.  Ripples, moving in tiny waves from south to north, occasionally disturbed the surface of the water as the wind gusted.  The blue sky and the white clouds and the tree branches reappeared when the wind subsided.  This bright and haunting World came to an end when the lane came to an end.  I could hear the rain water slowly gurgling into the storm drains.

"It is a commonplace of life that the greatest pleasure issues ultimately in the greatest grief.  Yet why -- why is it that this child of mine, who has not tasted half the pleasures that the world has to offer, who ought, by rights, to be as fresh and green as the vigorous young needles of the everlasting pine -- why must she lie here on her deathbed, swollen with blisters, caught in the loathsome clutches of the vile god of smallpox.  Being, as I am, her father, I can scarcely bear to watch her withering away -- a little more each day -- like some pure, untainted blossom that is ravished by the sudden onslaught of mud and rain.

"After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away -- like a hard crust of dirt that has been softened by melting snow.  In our joy we made what we call a 'priest in a straw robe.'  We poured hot wine ceremoniously over his body, and packed him and the god of smallpox off together.  Yet our hopes proved to be vain.  She grew weaker and weaker and finally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.

"Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

                              The world of dew
                         is the world of dew.
                              And yet, and yet -- "

Kobayashi Issa (prose translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; haiku translated by Robert Hass), from A Year of My Life (1819), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), pages 227-228.

Visiting his daughter's grave a month after her death, Issa wrote this haiku:

Wind of autumn!
And the scarlet flowers are there
That she loved to pluck.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Lewis Mackenzie), in Lewis Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa (John Murray 1957), page 100.

Here is another translation of the same haiku:

The red flower
you always wanted to pick --
now this autumn wind.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Sam Hamill), in Kobayashi Issa, The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku (translated by Sam Hamill) (Shambhala 1997), page 78.

Algernon Cecil Newton, "Landscape"

A lovely thought by William Cowper comes to mind:

"But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."

William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (January 3, 1787), in James King and Charles Ryskamp (editors), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Volume III: Letters 1787-1791 (Oxford University Press 1982), pages 5-6.

Yüan Chen (779-831) wrote a series of poems after the death of his wife. This is one of them.

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 191.

It is often the small things that matter, and that are not forgotten, as long as we remain here.  But they are not small things at all, are they?

Algernon Cecil Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Life

A few months ago, I discovered a lovely and moving poem.  I have a little story to tell about how this discovery came about, but the poem itself is entitled to center stage.

'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23.'

The little meadow by the sand,
Where Tamsin lies, is ringed about
With acres of the scented thyme.
The salt wind blows in all that land;
The great clouds pace across the skies;
Rare wanderers from the ferry climb.
One might sleep well enough, no doubt,
        Where Tamsin lies.

Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,
And all in life she might not have,
The silence and the utter peace
That tempest-winnowed spirits find
On slopes that front the western wave.
The white gulls circle without cease
        O'er Tamsin's grave.

E. K. Chambers, Carmina Argentea (1918).

I suspect that many moderns will find the poem to be too old-fashioned and too sentimental, too unironic, for their tastes.  Not I.  As I have noted here in the past, I consider sentimentality to be a perfectly acceptable human emotion.  Further, I am firmly in favor of anything that is deemed to be "old-fashioned."  Moreover, I believe that self-regarding, soulless irony is the bane of our times.  In short, I do not consider myself to be a "modern."

I find the poem to be absolutely beautiful.

Ernest Ehlers, "Sea Pinks, Porth Joke, Cornwall, May 1898" (1898)

Edmund Kerchever Chambers (1866-1954) was a civil servant in what was then known as the Board of Education.  In addition (and on the side), he was a leading scholar of English literature and, in particular, of the English theatre.  His most important works were The Mediaeval Stage (two volumes) and The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes).  He also prepared updated editions of several of Shakespeare's plays, the poems of John Donne, and the poems of Henry Vaughan.

In January, I posted two poems by Vaughan.  To confirm the text, I consulted Chambers's edition of Vaughan's poems on the Internet Archive. In doing so, I noticed a link to a book by Chambers titled Carmina Argentea.  I was not familiar with the book, so I opened the link.  I discovered a 32-page pamphlet that was, according to the title page, "Printed for the Author" in 1918.  The pamphlet contains poems written by Chambers.  He likely distributed copies of the pamphlet to his family and friends.

An "Envoi" at the start of the collection provides context.  It begins:  "A sorry sheaf of verse to bring/For fifty years of wayfaring/About the waste fields and the sown,/Where harvest of the Muse is grown!"  The "Envoi" concludes:  ". . . let them rest,/Poor relics of a broken quest."  In the United Kingdom of Chambers's time, literate men and women were wont to turn their hand to verse when sufficiently moved, even if the writing of poetry was not their primary vocation.  Carmina Argentea ("Silver Poems" or "Silver Songs") preserves twenty-one poems written by Chambers over "fifty years of wayfaring."

I began to read the poems.  They consisted of reflections on the city and the country, nature and the turn of the seasons, love and life.  All pleasant enough.  However, everything suddenly changed when I arrived at page 22, where I came upon 'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth.'  As I read the poem, I immediately realized that this was something of an entirely different order.  How did I know?  As in all such cases, the signs of being in the presence of beauty were physical and emotional:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in my chair, and, as the poem came to an end, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight (together with, I confess, misty eyes and a lump in the throat).

Robert Borlase Smart, "Cornish Cliffs, Zennor" (1923)

Of course, I was curious about Thomasine Trenoweth, and how she came into the life of E. K. Chambers.  My internet researches led me nowhere.  I did discover that the poem was given the title "Lelant" (with "In Memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23" appearing under the title) when it was republished in 1922 in the anthology Poems of To-Day: Second Series. Lelant is a village in Cornwall on the Hayle Estuary, a few miles southeast of St Ives.  However, I could find nothing about Chambers's connection with Lelant in particular, or with Cornwall in general:  he was born in Berkshire, attended Oxford, spent his working life in London, and retired to a village in Oxfordshire.  Cornish locations are mentioned in three other poems collected in Carmina Argentea.  Perhaps Chambers took his holidays in Cornwall?

But I have decided that it is best to leave Thomasine Trenoweth a mystery. Chambers's affectionate shortening of her name to "Tamsin" from "Thomasine" tells us something about her.  As does:  "Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,/And all in life she might not have."  And there is this as well:  "The silence and the utter peace/That tempest-winnowed spirits find/On slopes that front the western wave."  She was a person who once walked through the World.  Her departure was an occasion of sadness.  But she was not forgotten.

The following haiku by Bashō appeared here earlier this year, and it comes to mind again.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 393.

Byron Cooper (1850-1933)
"Hayle Estuary, Cornwall (The Shadow of a Cloud)"

In my previous post, I repeated one of my poetic precepts (for which I claim no originality):  "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet." Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth is a perfect instance of what I had in mind.  In his day, no one thought of Chambers as a poet. Yet he was moved by his feelings to preserve in a poem the memory of someone he affectionately referred to as "Tamsin," and to wish her a peaceful sleep.  "Parta Quies."

The poem saw the light of day in 1918, surfaced again in 1922, and then essentially disappeared.  But the poem -- and Tamsin -- have been there all along.  They now return in a new century.  This tells us something about the wondrous and patiently circuitous workings of life, art, and the World.

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For Mary Coleridge

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, one of my oft-repeated precepts regarding poetry is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  Of course, I make no claim of originality for this thought.  Thus, for instance, I happened upon the following observation by Rosanjin (a Japanese potter and artist) this past week:

"The sort of person who, when shown a painting, steps up to examine the artist's seal understands nothing about paintings.  The same may be said of the sort who immediately asks who painted it."

Rosanjin (1883-1959) (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), in Sidney Cardozo and Masaaki Hirano, The Art of Rosanjin (Kodansha 1987), page 120.

So it is with poems and poets.  Whether a poet is a "major" or a "minor" poet in the estimation of readers or critics is of no moment to me.  Likewise, I have no interest in debating which poets are "good," "better," or "best."  Do I have favorite poets?  Of course.  But I never think of them as being in competition with one another.  Again, it is the individual poem that matters.

I came to know Mary Coleridge by discovering the following poem in an anthology two or three decades ago (I don't recall the exact year).

               L'Oiseau Bleu

The lake lay blue below the hill.
     O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
     A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
     The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
     It caught his image as he flew.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

Mary Coleridge was the great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  She was born in 1861, and she died in 1907 at the age of 45.  Hence, one might be tempted to describe her as a "Victorian poet."  But that would be a mistake.  The use of terms such as "Victorian," "Romantic," or "Modernist" is over-simplistic, and often provides an excuse for not reading and appreciating individual poems.  I think that "L'Oiseau Bleu" is a lovely poem that happens to have been written in the Victorian era.  To me it seems timeless.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
"The Festival of St Swithin (The Dovecot)" (1866)

Now, having just pontificated upon the need to focus upon poems rather than poets, I am going to contradict myself (perhaps).  To wit:  I find it very comforting to spend time in the company of Mary Coleridge.  She is thoughtful, sensitive, sensible, and self-effacing.  These are qualities that I admire in any poet -- and in any person.

A comment made by Kingsley Amis about Edward Thomas (which has appeared here on more than one occasion) comes to mind:

"How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology (Hutchinson 1988), page 339.  For me, Mary Coleridge does this as well.

We never said farewell, nor even looked
     Our last upon each other, for no sign
Was made when we the linkèd chain unhooked
          And broke the level line.

And here we dwell together, side by side,
     Our places fixed for life upon the chart.
Two islands that the roaring seas divide
          Are not more far apart.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

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

A thread of unrequited, disappointed, and lost love runs through Coleridge's poetry.  It is a hint, not a preoccupation.  There is no woe-is-me melancholy or complaint.  She was clear-eyed about life.

"It comes to me that what we seem to need we are not given.  Joy cannot be born of necessity.  There is need of patience and need of peace, but no cry of need will bring joy."

Mary Coleridge, in Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (Constable 1910), pages 277-278.

Death and transience were often on her mind, but, again, not in a melancholy way.  She had an enviable perspective on things:  "Birthdays now seem to me to be like the lamp-posts along a road when you are nearing the end of a long, dark, delicious drive."  Mary Coleridge, in The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, page 73.  Or, consider this:

"Art is an odd thing, isn't it?  It's almost the only thing that seems to me to remain unchanged throughout one's life, and it does away with all possibility of hell, and all necessity of heaven.  You forget the dead too, and yet you know it is no treason to forget them there.  And you forget yourself."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, pages 267-268.

Yet she was ever mindful of a larger context as well:

"More and more as life goes on I feel as if one of the big temptations of it were to rest content with negative ease and freedom from worry, and to forget that that's only the body of happiness and not the soul.  Looking into the fluffy white heart of an oleander, the other day, a kind of rapture at its uselessness came over me, at the divine heedlessness of anything but glory and beauty at the making of it."

Mary Coleridge, Ibid, page 276.


Is this wide world not large enough to fill thee,
     Nor Nature, nor that deep man's Nature, Art?
Are they too thin, too weak and poor to still thee,
                         Thou little heart?

Dust art thou, and to dust again returnest,
     A spark of fire within a beating clod.
Should that be infinite for which thou burnest?
                         Must it be God?

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.

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

Each poem that we read has unknown possibilities within it.  We never know where it will lead us.  It may very well change our life.  I will be forever grateful for having long ago encountered "L'Oiseau Bleu."  Without it, I might never have known of Mary Coleridge, and my life would be much diminished.

"When we were out this afternoon, we saw the larks descending to the ground, almost without a flutter of their wings, as if they flew upon their singing.  Some people's lives are like that; they progress by harmony rather than movement."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, page 229.

She is buried in Grove Road Cemetery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.  She and her family were on holiday in Harrogate when she died of complications from surgery for acute appendicitis.  The epitaph on her gravestone reads: "Perfect Love."

Some in a child would live, some in a book;
     When I am dead let there remain of me
Less than a word -- a little passing look,
Some sign the soul had once, ere she forsook
     The form of life to live eternally.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), "The Vale of Rest" (1858)