A contrasting coxless pair, with one oar per rower

Last night, for no obvious reason, these words popped into my head:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

They appeared in my mind suddenly, completely without context, and at first I could not recall where I had heard them.  I ran through the possibilities, and eventually decided they must be from the end of The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has never really interested me.  But those particular words obviously did — why else would they pop into my mind completely unbidden?

Gradually I realized it was because they are poetry, in fact a short poem in themselves.

When I was in my college years, I developed a poetic form I called “Fragments.”  It came to me after reading translations of ancient Greek poetry, some lines of which exist only as short, isolated fragments of lost, larger poems.  So for a time, I wrote “fragments,” in which one may begin the poem in the middle of a thought with words like “…But if I tell you…”  or “…And so they vanished…” — new, brief  poems written as though they were fragments from some lost, longer work.

The quote from The Great Gatsby is, for me, essentially a “fragment” poem divorced from its wider context, and that it is a poem in itself becomes obvious if we present it like this:

…So we beat on,
Boats against the current,
Borne back ceaselessly
Into the past….

It is also, of course, a metaphor comparing human life to boats struggling against a current that continually bears us, no matter how we beat against it with our oars, backward.

There is a very similar (though completely non-metaphorical) summer hokku by Kitō:

The little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water. 

If we look again at the Fitzgerald quote, we find that its effectiveness is not only due to its evoking the contrary forces of trying to move forward while being carried backward, not only due to its metaphor, but also due to its alliteration, the repetition of the “b” sound and the “s” sound:

So we Beat on,
BoatS againSt the current,
Borne Back CeaSeleSSly
Into the paSt….

There is also the repetition of the “n” sound:

So we beat oN,
Boats agaiNst the curreNt,
BorNe back ceaselessly
INto the past….

And there is the pleasing, double-beat harmony between “beat on” and “borne back.”

This sort of thing draws our attention to the fact that in books, some lines supposedly of prose are actually lines of poetry.  But of course as you have read here in earlier postings, some lines of what is presented as poetry because of the division of lines turn out, on closer examination, to be merely prose disguised as poetry.  Do not be deceived, and do not fall into the trap (as even some prominent published poets do) of thinking that merely dividing what is inherently prose into “poem” lines makes it a genuine poem.

We can see the real thing in the “Gatsby” fragment.




English: Callanish Standing Stones - Midsummer...

Midsummer’s Day —

The Summer Solstice — “Summer Sunstead” — the longest day of the year.

Today I will briefly (it does not take more than that) discuss a poem by the visionary British poet William Blake:

Ah, Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go.

On the Internet one will find all kinds of differing interpretations of the poem.  But it is not really difficult if one keeps in mind Blake’s visionary spirituality.

Ah, Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

“Ah, Sunflower, weary of time / Who countest the steps of the sun.  What does that mean?  The sunflower is a part of the material world; the light of the sun represents the spiritual world.  Yet we see from its name that there is something in the sunflower that is linked with the sun; there is a spiritual aspect even within material things.  As we shall see, Blake likens this to the spiritual nature in material humans that longs for something beyond the material.  The sunflower is “weary of time,” that is, wearied by the slow and endless passage of time.  It longs for rest, for the place where “the traveller’s journey is done.”

I have read on the Internet that the sunflower is “counting the hours,” but that is too rigid a reading.  It is not the individual hours that it counts — the sunflower is not a sundial — but the slow, daily progress of the light of the sun across the sky.  There is that in the sunflower which draws it to the light

The sun, each day, sinks in the West and vanishes.  The end of day corresponds to the end of life.  The West is a very ancient symbol of the end of life and of the afterlife.  That is why in ancient Egypt, burials were on the west bank of the Nile.  The West was Amenti — the Realm of the Dead.  And in Celtic mythology, to the West, across the sea, lay Tir-nan-og, the Land of Youth — the Isles of the Blessed.  We find a reflection of this in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, in which the elven folk leave Middle Earth from the Grey Havens to cross the waters to the Undying Lands in the West.  And it is not surprising that in World War One, an old expression was revived when  speaking of a death:  “He has gone West.”

So there is a great deal of meaning in this sunflower following the sun.  And sunflowers do precisely that.  The flower (due to a difference in growth of cells in the flower stem) daily does follow the progress of the sun across the sky from East in the morning to West in the evening.

Blake, of course, says nothing of differences in cell growth.  To him, the sunflower is

Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Notice how Blake connects the notion of seeking light and following the sun with a “sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done.”  That, of course, is the afterlife, which for Blake was a life of the spirit beyond this material world.  It reminds one of the old term that spiritualists used for the realm of the departed — “The Summerland.”

We see that this is the correct interpretation when we read the second part of the poem, which tells us of this Summerland, this “golden clime” (gold is connected always with the notion of light, and of course with the sun as well):

Where the youth pined away with desire
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go.

The youth who has pined away (and died) with desire wishes to go to that golden clime, as does the pale virgin “shrouded in snow (buried beneath snow),” which expression is intended to give us a contrast with the warmth and light of the Summerland to which both, rising from their graves, aspire to go.  And it also gives us a look into some of Blake’s peculiar notions about unfulfilled desires, because, as you noticed, the youth pined away with (unsatisfied) desire and the “pale virgin” of course never experienced physical sensuality.  But in both cases, where they long to go is the place of golden light and rest.

That is the whole point of mentioning the sunflower.  Just as the flower head turns to follow the path of the sun westward, so does that which is spiritual in the material body of humans long for the place of light, the golden clime (climate /region) “Where the traveller’s journey is done” —  the afterlife, the “spirit world” as some call it.

So why is the sunflower “weary of time”?  Because that which draws it to the light  — its spiritual nature in Blake’s view — is weary of the material world and longs for the immaterial, spiritual world, the place of rest beyond time as we know it.

It is obvious that Blake is projecting his own views upon the sunflower, but we have seen his reasons for doing so, and they fit well with very ancient human feelings and emotions about the sun and about the West.

And, of course, we should not overlook Blake’s referring to the sunflower as a “who,” as though it were an intelligent creature that both wearies and longs to go, and to the “steps” of the sun, as though it too were a living being.  Of course both of these are very much in keeping with the ancient way of looking at things, in which all things have their own lives, even stones.

We must not forget that Blake wrote in his A Vision of the Last Judgement of his view of the ultimate unreality of the material world:

Mental Things are alone Real; what is call’d Corporeal, Nobody knows of its Dwelling Place: it is in Fallacy, & its Existence an Imposture. . . I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me…
“What,” it will be Question’d, 
“When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?”

O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

A gold guinea coin of Blake’s time
(photo credit Wikipedia)

In any case, from this Midsummer’s Day onward, the length of the day will gradually shorten until we reach the opposite of Midsummer’s Day in the Wheel of the Year — the Winter Solstice.


The title page of On the Origin of Species, fi...
The title page of On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problem with religion — any religion — is not in whatever spirituality, if any, it might contain; the problem is dogma.

Look for the root of any religious controversy, or of religious controversy that has escalated into violence, and there you will find adherence to dogma — to rigid beliefs in this, rigid beliefs in that, believing this story or that, this bit of nonsense or that.

Leo Tolstoy, in his own wordy way, recognized this in the Russia of his time.  He could see that dogma separates, while what he called “love” unites.  The Russian Orthodox Church of his time did not agree, and has never forgiven him for pointing out that the Emperor (in the form of Church and State) had no clothes.

But if one takes dogma out of religion, what is left?  If there is no spirituality in it, nothing is left but outworn creeds and rites and rituals and old stories.  It has simply moved from the blind leading the blind to the bland leading the bland.

That is why there is such an increasing abandonment of traditional religion in Europe and in America.  But if there is spirituality in it, then once the weeds and briars of dogma are cut away, the light may shine in,  and that spirituality is allowed, at last, to grow and be a positive force both inside and outside the individual.  And if there is no genuine spirituality there, then when all the brush of dogma is removed, that absence will be revealed.

It all comes down to experience and practice in contrast to belief.  The Quakers — the Society of Friends — discovered this in the West, though at times even their practice was too overlaid with belief to adequately deliver on its promise.  But to the extent that Quakers dropped the baggage of belief, to that extent the light of spirituality — that which Quakers called the “Inward Light,” was allowed to shine.

When this happens — when “belief” is dropped and experiential practice is the important thing — then the boundaries of religion, of “us and them” — drop away as well.  That is when the fences between “religions” fall and spirituality unites.

The problem with religion, then, is dogmatic belief.  The cure for that problem is open and honest investigation — experiential spirituality.

If spirituality is the most important aspect of religion, then all the rest is not really necessary.  There is no need to insist on the perpetuation of outworn medieval dogmas that pretend to be moral or ethical when they are not, dogmas that keep females in the category of second-rate humans, dogmas that prevent those with same-gender attraction from having the same rights and freedoms as others, dogmas that insist on the unquestioned authority of a religious hierarchy or of a religious “holy book.”

In the final analysis, all “holy books” are written by humans, and humans are fallible.  To pretend that any such book is an infallible divine revelation that one may not question is to restrict the investigation of truth.

That failure to question and to educate is why even now, in the beginning of the 21st century, we have such abysmal ignorance among Americans that some 46% of them still hold belief in creationism over the reality of evolution.  Why?  Because creationism is promoted as a dogma by a number of religious groups who frown on placing the actual facts of scientific discovery above the completely factually-unsupported beliefs promoted by literalistic readings of this or that “sacred” book.

Fundamental to a free and progressive society is the ability to question and refuse religious authority, whether it is based on a “sacred” book or in a religious hierarchy.  There can be no restrictions placed on the right to publicly investigate and to publicly criticize any religion or belief, any dogma.  One cannot limit such investigation and public criticism (which includes satire) on the premise that it is “offensive” to a religion.  Truth is always going to be “offensive” to dogmatists, because it shows where they have gone astray and reveals them for what they are.  That is why it is so crucially important that freedom of speech in the examination and criticism of dogma continues to exist unhindered.

That means a truly intellectually free society has no “blasphemy” laws; it has no laws requiring one not to “offend” or satirize a particular religion or belief system.  Religion should never be segregated from the free marketplace of ideas as a “holy ground” upon which one may not tread in one’s investigations.

We recall the words of Alfred Tennyson, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  All religious belief should be subject to honest doubt, honest investigation, honest criticism.  That is why, paradoxically, an atheist may be a more spiritual person that the most rigid, unquestioning believer in dogma.  That is because the one is looking for truth, the other for a mere end to questioning.  And to find the truth, one must go beyond belief.


A pleasant spring hokku by Bashō:

Spring rain;
A roof leak trickles
Down the wasps’ nest. 

This reminds me of Blyth’s remark that to write hokku one should live in a house which either has a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.