Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peace And Quiet

"All I want is a little peace and quiet."  A plaint from time immemorial.  We mustn't make the mistake of believing that our particular moment in time is unique in its clamor, chaos, harriedness, and horrors.  It has always been thus in the distracted world of human beings ("distracted from distraction by distraction"), and will forever be thus.  No wonder we long for tranquility and silence.

                 Peace at Noon

Here there is peace, cool peace,
Upon these heights, beneath these trees;
Almost the peace of sleep or death,
To wearying brain, to labouring breath.

Here there is rest at last,
A sweet forgetting of the past;
There is no future here, nor aught
Save this soft healing pause of thought.

Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Leonard Smithers 1892).

An argument can be made that the cultivation of peace and quiet is a duty that we owe both to ourselves and to others.  Why add to the cacophony?

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Constable 1903), pages 13-14.

There is perhaps an echo of Pascal in Gissing's passage:  "I have often said, that all the misfortune of men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their chamber."  Blaise Pascal (translated by Joseph Walker), Pensées (1670).

Bertram Priestman, "Wooded Hillside" (1910)

"Every day the world grows noisier."  True.  Yet, as noisy (and noisome) as our current world may be, serenity is always available to us.  The first step is to ignore the siren song of the 24/7/365 distraction industry, the empty world of "news," politics, and entertainment.  Contrary to what the purveyors of distraction would have us believe, our lives can be lived perfectly well without them, thank you.  The choice is ours.


I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me.  But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river, and enter
the church with its clear reflection
beside it.
                 There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide.  Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water's
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

The closing lines of John Drinkwater's "The Wood" come to mind:

And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme,
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

The "theme" of which Drinkwater speaks has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of distraction.  Rather, it belongs to the world of peace and quiet, the world of "the serene presence" that patiently waits for us to arrive.

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

I have no name for "the serene presence," but I sometimes experience a fleeting sense of it (a sense that glimmers and then vanishes) when I behold the World's beautiful particulars.  Thomas's "the water's/quiet insistence on a time/older than man" hints at the nature of this abiding presence.  But there is also an element of timelessness, of eternity in the present moment, involved.

Say, for instance, the timelessness of flowing water, ever-present and ever-departing.  "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing/Through many places, as if it stood still in one."  (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Ah, the urge to freeze the World in a state of permanent beauty!  But that would be the death of beauty, wouldn't it?

           The River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas speaks of "the serene presence;" MacDonogh speaks of "the giver of quiet":  there is always an urge to put a name on things, and these are lovely descriptions.  But words are ultimately not sufficient.  The "calm-flowing river" -- the wordless movement itself -- is what matters.  It is there that serenity is found.

Bertram Priestman, "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)

There is an outer and an inner dimension to the peace and quiet that we seek.  The goal, as Gissing suggests, is "life that is led in thoughtful stillness," a life in which we strive to "possess [our] souls in quiet." However, living in this manner does not entail an abandonment of the World.  "But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin sound of birds.  Several times lately I have lain wakeful when there sounded the first note of the earliest lark; it makes me almost glad of my restless nights."  George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, page 72. These are "the lucidities of life/That are my daily beauty" that John Drinkwater speaks of in "The Wood."

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).  The poem is untitled.

T'ao Ch'ien's poem is clear:  tranquility is a matter of the heart, but it develops and unfolds within a concrete world of chrysanthemums, green summer hills, and birds flying home in pairs at dusk.  It is telling that the line "I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge" has often been intentionally echoed in subsequent Chinese poems, as well as in Japanese haiku and waka:  following T'ao Ch'ien, the poets remind us that the attainment of serenity takes place amidst the commonplace, beautiful particulars of the World.

     In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
     There is everything!

Sodō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017


Is there anything as peaceful and as pleasurable as the soft buffeting of a warm wind in your ears as you walk abroad on a sunny day?  A steady, yet gentle and enfolding, wind.  A blue and gold day in late spring, summer, or early autumn.  There is no reason to pine for a future Paradise:  we abide within it now.

Late in his life, A. E. Housman declared:  "In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action."  A. E. Housman, letter to Houston Martin (March 22, 1936), in Archie Burnett (editor), The Letters of A. E. Housman, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2007), p. 528.  "In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm," there is something to be said for Housman's philosophical inclinations.  The word "hedonism" has taken on a pejorative cast in modern times:  it has come to imply licentiousness or immorality.  But, after all, it simply means (according to The Oxford English Dictionary) "the doctrine or theory of ethics in which pleasure is regarded as the chief good, or the proper end of action."

When it comes to the beautiful particulars of the World, I am an unapologetic hedonist.  But I would hope that my pleasure is not "egoistic" (or "egotistic" either).  And I do my best (subject to constant failure) to combine my pleasure with gratitude.

Hence, for instance, the wind.

            Nobody Knows

Often I've heard the Wind sigh
     By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
     Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
     While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
          What it said.

Nobody knows what the Wind is,
     Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
     And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
     Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
          That covers me.

And so we live under deep water,
     All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
     When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
     And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
          Burns day.

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A Castle in Scotland"

But hedonism remains at the surface of things.  Whereas, as de la Mare says, "we live under deep water."  This is where immanence comes in: glimmers and glimpses and inklings of something within, behind, and beyond all of those beautiful surfaces.

One either has this sense of the World or one does not.  I do not say this in a judgmental fashion, nor do I claim that those who have this sense are "wiser" or more "enlightened" than those who do not.  How we find ourselves in the World is, for each of us, a matter of mystery.  It is not a case of true or false or of right or wrong.

De la Mare again:  "Nobody Knows."  Exactly.  No explanations are necessary.  Nor are they forthcoming.  We should leave it at that.

In the meantime, we have the wind.  And poems about the wind.


White roses shatter, overblown,
by the breath of a little wind undone,
yet the same air passing scarcely stirs
the tall dark green perpetual firs.

John Hewitt, Scissors for a One-Armed Tailor: Marginal Verses 1929-1954 (1974)

"Providence" feels like a haiku:  a report on experience.  (To borrow from Edmund Blunden.)  However, a word such a "providence" would likely be avoided by a haiku poet.  Too subjective.  Of course, I am completely open to the possibility that what the wind does may well be "providence":  I am not in any way criticizing Hewitt's use of the word.

Hewitt, like a good haiku poet, tells us exactly what he saw.  The difference is that he gives us a hint.  A haiku poet would leave us to draw our own conclusions.  Or, better yet, would leave us to draw no conclusions at all, but only see the World as it is, or, perhaps more accurately, as the haiku poet saw it in a moment of passing time.

Enough of that.  I do not wish to create the impression that I am quibbling about "Providence":  I think it is a lovely poem.  As is this, another poem about the wind of Ireland.


This wind that howls about our roof tonight
And tears live branches screaming from great trees
Tomorrow may have scarcely strength to ruffle
The rabbit's back to silver in the sun.

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

James McIntosh Patrick,"Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)

Of course, poets cannot help but bring humans into their apostrophes about the wind.  Thus, for instance, they say that the wind "sighs" or "moans" or "cries."  This is to be expected.  All poetry, all art, is an attempt to place ourselves into the World in the hope of making sense of things, however briefly.  It is not surprising that, in doing so, we see ourselves (or come upon ourselves) in the World.

Moreover, we mustn't forget that the beautiful particulars of the World include human beings.  The wind.  People.

            The Wind Shifts

This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

We are the wind and the wind is us.  The wind is us and we are the wind.

But we mustn't go too far.  Despite the pretensions of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" (also, risibly, known as "the Age of Reason"), we are not the measure of the World.  Our conceit may be boundless and shameless, but we are not in a position to make claim to the wind.

This past winter and spring have been, even for this damp part of the world, unseasonably rainy.  As a consequence, the wild grasses in the meadows are more than four feet tall in places, taller than I have ever seen them.  As I pass by them on a breezy day, I am inclined to think that they are whispering as they sway, falling and rising, in the wind.  But the beauty of that sound has absolutely nothing to do with the name I place upon it.

            Thesis and Counter-Thesis

-- Love of God is love of self.
The stars and the seas are filled by precious I
Sweet as a pillow and a sucked thumb.

-- It would be most unflattering for adoring men
If the grasshopper chirping in the warm grass
Could glorify that attribute called Being
In a general manner, without referring it to his own persona.

Czeslaw Milosz, City Without a Name (1969).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)

As I suggested here recently, wisdom does not necessarily come with age.  I can attest to that.  But growing old does provide an opportunity to pare your life down to essentials.  Think of all the things you once thought were important and that now mean nothing.  The length of that list will depend upon the length of your time upon the earth, dear reader.

One day you will realize, out of the blue, that you have lived more years than the number of years that remain to you.  On that day, life becomes simpler.  You may turn your attention to the wind.


Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind, I grew old giving thanks.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"