THE WOODSPURGE: ALL THOUGHT EXHAUSTED

Today’s poem is by the “Pre-Raphaelite” poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).  It is made essentially of two elements, one objective (giving a straight description of something) and the other subjective (giving a personal interpretation of something).  The first three stanzas are objective, just telling what happened, without commentary.  The single objective verse — the personal interpretation or commentary of the poet — is the very last one.

To understand this poem, you must first know that a wood spurge is a wild, green, perennial plant that grows in moist soil in and about the partial shade of woodlands.  The spurge found in southern England is Euphorbia amygdaloides.  It grows to about 32 inches in height.  It is not a striking plant, being largely monotone green, and at its tips it develops a little green “cup” out of which two other, smaller green “cups” sprout — giving us “a cup of three.”  Rossetti writes wood spurge as one word — “woodspurge” — but now it is commonly written as two.

Euphorbe des bois, Gy
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not, however, a poem about botany, but rather about the stages of grief — the kind of grief one has at the passing of someone very close and dear.  The remarkable thing about this work is the manner in which the writer conveys the depth of this grief to the reader.  As we shall see, he leads us into this gradually.

Here is The Woodspurge:

The wind flapp’d loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walk’d on at the wind’s will, —
I sat now, for the wind was still.

There is an underlying simile here.  The wind “flapp’d loose” — “shaken out.”  This reminds us of a sheet a woman shakes out when hanging laundry, which of course creates gusts of “wind.” But the simile is very weak, so we only feel its effect in the background of the lines, as the poet intended.  It does not overwhelm his purpose.  So in this stanza we first feel the gusts of blowing wind, then the wind going still, as though “shaken out dead” from the trees and the hill — a movement from violent action to stillness and emptiness.  This transition is very important in the poem, but this is revealed only gradually.

The poet tells us that he had walked “at the wind’s will,” that is, walked carried along with the force of the wind, randomly; but now he sits, because the wind has gone still.  We shall realize, as we continue the poem, that this too is a kind of simile giving us two stages of grief, the first gusty and forceful, the second absolutely still and empty.

Between my knees my forehead was,—
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

The poet describes his posture, sitting with his head dropped between his knees, so that his long hair touched the grasses growing up from the earth.  His lips were drawn tight and firm, and he made no verbal expression of the sorrow we see obvious in his dejected position. His bare ears “heard the day pass,” meaning he sat there, unmoving, for a very long time.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flower’d, three cups in one.

His eyes were open, but his field of vision was not wide — with only about ten growing weeds on which he could gaze, could “fix his vision.”  And among those weeds, in the shade, was a wood spurge, with everything on the plant the same monotone light green.  It is the woodspurge that draws his long, unmoving stare.

Up to now, the poet has been completely objective.  He has given us a bare description of his walk in the gusts of wind, of how the wind went still, of how he then sat with his head down and eyes open, and of how his gaze fixed on the wood spurge.  But now he turns to commentary, giving us the point of the poem, his conclusions.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom, or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me, —
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

“Perfect grief” is utter, complete grief.  That is the stage the poet reached as the wind went still and he sat down.  Earlier he was blown about and carried here and there by his violent gusts of thought and emotional sorrow, like the blowing wind in which he walked.  But now that wind has gone silent, as have his thoughts and emotions.  All that remains is just the stark, bare, empty, utterly stunning sense of loss, unmixed with thoughts or movement — “perfect grief,” the greatest depth of sorrow.

Now the poet, in looking back on that time, has a realization.  When he was in that profound, silent state of utter sorrow, with his thoughts, like the wind, gone perfectly still and silent, all that remained active were his bare senses, particularly vision.  And in that condition of absolute grief,  all that registered in his mind was his view of the woodspurge and the noticed fact that it had a “cup of three.”  And that objective reality in the emptiness of that time of sorrow will forever express the depth of his grief more accurately than any thoughts or emotions — his total sense of vacant loss, all emotion and thought and movement, internal and external, exhausted.

It is the one thing that deepest stage of grief left to him — not a lesson of wisdom learned,    not a memory of his loss, because thoughts had gone — only

The woodspurge has a cup of three.

This bare sensation, this bare noticing as an expression of deepest grief is what makes Rossetti’s poem remarkable.

David

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WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY: PAID FOR IN PAIN

Romance is a very strange thing.

It is a kind of psychological obsession with another person — an obsession so strong that it gives that other person control over whether the obsessed is happy or unhappy.  It gives one soaring emotional highs and abyssal emotional lows.  It can lead to the most bizarre behavior.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about romance is that it is not voluntary.  One does not consciously choose to be “in love” with another person.  Instead, it is something happening on a largely unconscious level — something that seems to unaccountably happen to a person, the passive victim.

The Greeks and Romans thought of it as being shot by the arrow of Eros, the god of love, who lives on in our modern images of Cupid.  As in the old cartoons, once one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, one no longer has control over one’s feelings, and is led on a wild roller coaster ride of emotion.

To the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the process of falling in love involved the unconscious projection of one’s ideal inner concept of a male or female on another person.  Now that person was unlikely to really possess all of those idealized qualities, but as long as that “outer” person made a good screen onto which the unconscious mind could project those qualities, what the obsessed person saw was not the male or female as he or she actually was, but rather only the projection of the unconscious ideal.

English: Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph B...
Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph Bosio at the Hermitage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That accounts for all the stupid things people do when “in love.”

The American psychologist Dorothy Tennov — in her book Love and Limerence – the Experience of Being in Love —  had a very sensible approach to the whole matter.  She made a useful distinction between genuine love and what she called “limerence.”  Limerence is what we ordinarily think of as “falling in love,” the obsession with another person that fills our thoughts and forces us through those emotional highs and lows, depending on whether we think our “love” is being sufficiently reciprocated or not.  Real love, however, is something else — something less exciting but far more lasting than limerence, which glows with such a strong flame that it eventually burns itself out, leaving one wondering what he or she previously saw in the other person.

Now one can discuss all of this intellectually; one can warn the young against it, explaining the difference between real, lasting love and the obsession of limerence.  But such explanations are not likely to prevent the occurence of “falling in love,” simply because it is a largely unconscious process.  As Carl Jung wrote, we are not master in our own house.  It is all too easy for unconscious obsession to take control, in spite of the conscious will.

Alfred Edward Housman wrote one of the best-known poems about the first experience of this unconscious obsession with another.  It is called When I was One-and-Twenty:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

A young man 21 years old hears a wise and experienced older person warning against “falling in love.”  It is better, he is told, to give away one’s money than to give away one’s heart — better, that is, than to allow one’s self to “fall in love” with another, to give them control over one’s emotional state.

“Crowns and pounds and guineas” were units in the British monetary system of Housman’s day (and right up to 1971).  A pound, when a gold coin, was called a sovereign; when paper, it was a pound note or in slang, a “quid.”  A pound consisted of 20 shillings, which in slang were “bob.”  A crown coin (seldom actually used) was five shillings, “five bob.”  A guinea was considered a more “formal” unit, more “gentlemanly,” though it may seem an odd concept.  Works of art, for example, were customarily priced in guineas.  Years ago, when I was quite young, I was in an English town on market day, and was examining some paintings in one of the open-air stalls.  I noticed that the prices were all in “guineas,” which puzzled me; I had seen pence and sixpence and shillings and half crowns and pound notes, but not guineas.  So I asked the young man in charge what that meant.  He promptly and correctly informed me that a guinea was a pound and a shilling (the equivalent of 21 shillings).

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

Now the wise man, continuing his advice, “ups the ante,” as is said in card playing.  He increases the amount one should be willing to part with before one parts with one’s heart.  Now it is not just crowns and pounds and guineas, but very precious things — pearls and rubies.  This is a way of saying, “Give anything away before you give your heart away to someone.”  In short, do not fall in love.

The advice is “to keep your fancy free,” that is, do not fixate and put all your attention on one person, but keep your mental options open:  continue meeting various people, experience them as individuals, get to know their good and bad points, enjoy being with them and do not be in a hurry to commit yourself.

But our young man is only 21 years old, inexperienced and not yet wise in the ways of the world.  Young people hear the advice to be cautious and slow and patient and careful in avoiding premature relationships with those of the sex to whom one is attracted, but do they take it to heart?  Do they take it seriously enough?

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again, 
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty, 
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Our wise counselor tells the young man that whenever one gives one’s heart to another, that is, whenever one falls in love, there will be consequences.  Giving one’s heart was never done “in vain,” which here means “without results.”  And what are those results, those consequences?

Again, Housman speaks in monetary terms, but this time a different kind of coin — negative emotions.  Falling in love is paid for with “sighs a plenty,” that is, with many sad sighs of remorse.  And one’s heart is “sold for endless rue,” that is, traded for endless regrets.

In the last two lines, we find that our young man did not heed the warning:

And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

What a difference a year can make.  In just that short time, our young man has found by experience that the pain and regret he had been warned would follow “falling in love” were not just vain imaginings.  He has since allowed it to happen; he has fallen in love, and has experienced its pains.  And now he can tell us from his own bitter experience,

And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

First-hand experience is often the best, but also the most bitter teacher.

David

THE SANITY OF INDIVIDUALS, THE MADNESS OF CROWDS: EMILY DICKINSON

In spite of her cleverness and uniqueness, I have never been very fond of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, though I respect it for what it is.  I know she has earned her own place in the history of poetry, but I find her in general too abstract — too much living in her mind — which is no doubt due in part to her rather reclusive and withdrawn lifestyle.  One cannot help but be impressed, however, by her insistence on the right to her own individuality.

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I would like to discuss one of her “didactic” poems.  A didactic poem is one that has teaching as its purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure alone.  And what this poem teaches is very important.  It is called Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails. 
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

To me, the chief application of this poem is to the distinction between the thoughts and beliefs and actions of the masses in contrast to those of the individual.

It is all too common in human history, that when the majority of a society were set on a given course of belief or action, any individual who spoke out against it did so at his or her own risk.

We can trace this lesson back far in human history.  The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.”  His method of reasoned questioning and its results ran contrary, so the authorities held, to the best interests of the people of Athens.

There are countless examples of the persecution of individuals who have held opinions contrary to those of the dominant religion, particularly when that religion had (or has) strong state or political support.

However, many of the great advances of humankind have come about precisely because of individuals who held opinions contrary to those held by the masses in general.  We need only recall Galileo, who found by observation that the traditional view of the earth being the center of the Solar System was quite mistaken; and Charles Darwin, whose investigations revealed unquestionably that all creatures were not created in a few days time a few thousand years previously, but instead had evolved from lower forms of life over eons of time.

Then too, there were those like the Quaker John Woolman, who spoke out very early against the abomination of slavery.  And there were the women who first began speaking for the right of women to vote, and often suffered terribly for it.

One can think of innumerable causes in which individuals stood against the majority, much to the eventual benefit of society.  But for those few who speak out, life can be very difficult.  They are often stigmatized as radical or as mad.  In the Soviet Union and Communist China, one way of treating dissidents has been to remove them from society and shut them away in psychiatric wards, as though they were mental patients.

Dickinson points out in her poem, however, that the madness of such people is often actually the most heavenly of common sense, to the “discerning eye,” that is, to those who can see clearly and rationally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely illusion  and mass opinion.

She tells us further that “much sense” can be “the starkest madness,” that is, what the majority finds sensible and “true” can be the plainest, strongest insanity.

We do not have to look far for examples of that.  Look at the people of Nazi Germany caught up in the idolization of Hitler and his lunacy.  It was very risky to take an individual position then against the position of the masses.  Look at the American South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and how those who spoke in favor of equal rights did so at peril of their lives.

It still goes on today.  Those holding a view different from that of the masses, particularly in any matter relating to politics or religion, are often stigmatized, stereotyped as “crazy” in order to discredit their ideas and push them out of the public mind and view.  But it is often precisely these individuals, who think for themselves and not by what everyone else is saying and doing, who lead humankind forward in sudden, bold steps.

Individualism in thought has always been, and still is, in some societies, dangerous.  Whether someone is perceived as sane or mad can depend on whether his or her views fit those of the majority or not:

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.

It is the majority — that is, the beliefs and will of the majority — that prevail, that have the stronger position.  If the majority decides that supposed witches are to be burned and homosexuals put in prison, or women kept isolated and at home, then that is considered “sane” and all opposition madness or impiety.

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

So, those who want to be accepted, those who don’t want trouble, know which way the wind blows, as did Dickinson:

Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Agree with the masses, with those in social, political or religious power, and you are considered “sane.”  But if you “demur,” if you show reluctance or refusal in going along with the accepted belief or behavior, you suddenly become perceived as dangerous, like someone with severe mental illness, and you are “handled with a chain,” treated accordingly.

“Handled with a chain” takes us back to the evil days when the mentally ill could be placed in asylums and chained.

Take the case of Plympton House Lunatic Asylum, in England:

In July 1843 a woman who had given birth to a child but five or six weeks before was found to be confined in ‘a straight waistcoat and chained by the arm and leg to a bench’.  Ten curable patients and two idiots were being looked after by a lunatic who was himself kept in chains to prevent him from escaping.  As if that was not bad enough, later that year the lady mentioned above was found to be chained not only by her leg but by another passing around her waist and an iron ring with two hand locks restraining her hands.  In total, two private patients and nineteen paupers were found to be chained to their beds each night at that time.”

Of course Dickinson’s poem applies also to the person in ordinary society who is “different” in opinions and actions, like Dickinson herself, with her seclusion and her “innovative and unorthodox” beliefs and opinions.  It is likely this smaller scale she had in mind, given that no doubt many in her time and place considered her odd, but it applies as well to the greater scale, in which a person who stands against the prevailing beliefs often pays for it dearly.  And yet it is often these same people who have led humans to transcend pettiness and ignorance and irrationality.

That is why freedom of belief (including freedom from belief) and freedom of speech and expression are so critically important to a free and progressive society.  And we should include in that universal freedom of education — the right of anyone, male or female, to learn to read and write, and to be exposed to all kinds of contrary views and opinions in the open marketplace of ideas.  And of course the right to come to one’s own conclusions and personal beliefs, and to express them freely and openly.

David

PASSING IT ON: THE “BEAUTIFUL MUSIC” LIST

In view of the importance of the role that music plays in life, one must stress once more that it is veritable magic, capable of abasing and degrading the person listening to it, or exalting and elevating him to the luminous regions of his being. Hence, a shrewd aspirant will show himself to be extremely alert as to what he risks believing is harmless, but which may seriously weigh him down and delay his spiritual progress.”

(Edward Salim Michael)
http://www.meditation-presence.com/en/articles/the-role-of-great-music

Many years ago I knew a fellow — now deceased — who had a lasting effect on my life by introducing me to various works of music that I had not previously known.  I have been grateful for that ever since, and so today I want to take a bit of space here to share with you some of my own favorite titles so that you may explore them at your leisure, at least those with which you are not already familiar.  It is unfortunate that I cannot just present you with the music itself, but you all know how copyright works.  You are likely to find versions of some of them on the Internet that you may listen to for free — or at least brief audio clips to give you an idea of what awaits you.

These are some of the most beautiful pieces of music you are likely to encounter.  Most of them are “classical,” but do not let that deter you, or you will miss some wonderful things.

The list I am placing here is largely the kind of music I generally prefer, which means, on the whole, tranquil and relaxing.  There is a time and place for other kinds of music, but this list contains some of the works for which I am most grateful, and that is why I want to share them with you.  I will add more titles gradually to this list, so it will grow over time, and you may check this posting now and then to see what has been added.  And if you have a favorite piece of “quiet” music that I have not included, feel free to let me know.
rosen

So here we begin, not in any particular order.  Please let me me know if you find it of interest or helpful.

MUSIC LIST

Vaughan Williams, Ralph:  The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams, Ralph:  Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams, Ralph:  Fantasia on Greensleeves
Vaughan Williams, Ralph:  Five Variations of Dives and Lazarus

Tárrega, Francisco: Memories Of The Alhambra (Recuerdos de la Alhambra)
Grieg, Edvard:  Solvejg’s Song (from the Peer Gynt Suite, #1)
Grieg, Edvard:   Ase’s Death (from the Peer Gynt Suite, #1)
Grieg, Edvard:  Morning Mood (from the Peer Gynt Suite, #1)
Grieg, Edvard:  To Spring (An Den Frühling, Opus 43/6)
Grieg, Edvard:  Last Spring (Våren, from Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34)

Smetana, Bedrich:  Vltava (from Ma Vlast — this one gets a bit loud)
Villa-Lobos, Heitor:  Bachianas Brasileiras #5 (Aria)
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr (Peter):  Andante Cantabile (from String Quartet #1  in D, Opus 11-2)
Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai: Song of the Indian Guest (also known as “Song of India”) from Sadko
Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai: The Young Prince and Princess, from Sheherazade

Anonymous Welsh:  Suo Gan (a Welsh lullaby)
Strauss, Richard:  Im Abendrot (“At Sunset,” from Four Last Songs)
Strauss, Richard:  Beim Schlafengehen (“On Going to Sleep,” from Four Last Songs)
Schumann, Robert:  Of Strange Lands and People (from Scenes of Childhood, Opus 15)
Schumann, Robert:  : Träumerei (Opus 15, # 7 in F major)
Schubert Franz:  “Ständchen” (D 957)

Erik Satie:  Three Gymnopédies

1.  Sicilienne, by Maria Theresia von Paradis:
Fauré, Gabriel:  Après un rêve, by Gabriel Fauré

Fauré, Gabriel:  Sanctus (from his Requiem — gets a bit loud briefly)
Fauré, Gabriel: Sicilienne
Fauré
, Gabriel:  Pie Jesus (from his Requiem)
Fauré, Gabriel:  Pavane, Opus 50 (Pour une Infante Défunte)
Picker, Tobias:  Old and Lost Rivers (amazing that this is not better known)
Saint-Saëns, Camille:  The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals)

Mozart, W. Amadeus:  Ave Verum Corpus (KV 618)
Coulais, Bruno:  Caresse sur l’ocean
Coulais, Bruno:  La Nuit

Rachmaninov, Sergei:  Adagio Sostenuto, from Piano Concerto #2 in C minor
Rachmaninov, Sergei:  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43, Variation #18
Rachmaninov, Sergei:  Vocalise, from Songs, Opus 34-14

Allegri, Gregorio:  Miserere
Mahler, Gustav:  Adagietto from Symphony #5 in C minor
Debussy, Claude:  Girl with the Flaxen Hair (La fille aux cheveux de lin) Préludes, Book I, #8
Debussy, Claude:  Claire de Lune (Moonlight), from Suite bergamasque
Debussy, Claude:  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Brahms, Johannes:  Waltz in A flat major, Opus 39
Borodin, Alexander:  Notturno Andante, from String Quartet #2 in D
Borodin, Alexander:  Maidens’ Dance; Polovtsian Dances, from Prince Igor
Barber, Samuel:  Adagio for Strings, Opus 11
Albinoni, Tomaso:  Adagio, from Oboe Concerto in D minor, Opus 9/2
Albinoni, Tomaso:  Adagio in G Minor
Delibes, Léo:  Viens, Mallika (Flower Duet) from Lakme
Dvořák, Antonín:  Songs my Mother Taught Me, from Zigeunermelodien, Opus 55, B 104
Dvořák, Antonín:  Largo, Symphony #9 in E minor, Opus 95 “From the New World”
Elgar, Edward  Adagio Moderato from Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85
Josquin Des Prez: Tu solus qui facis mirabilia
Godard, Benjamin: Idylle
Khachaturian, Aram:  Adagio from the Gayane Ballet Suite
Ungar, Jay: Ashokan Farewell

Barry, John: Somewhere in Time (the theme as well as much of the rest of the movie soundtrack)
Bizet, Georges: Au fond du temple saint (from Les pêcheurs de perles — “The Pearl Fishers”)
Mascagni, Pietro:  Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
Von Paradis, Maria Theresia: Sicilienne

 

David

THEY ARE NOT LONG, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES: THE BRIEF LIFE OF ERNEST DOWSON

Today’s poem is by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900).  Merely discussing him is a sad matter, because, like Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Dowson was both a student at Oxford for a time and a severe alcoholic whose life ended far too early.  We can extend the parallel further in that both were Roman Catholic, in Dowson’s case by conversion.

English: Portrait photo of English poet Ernest...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We should not be surprised that he titled his poem in Latin; this was in the days, after all, when a knowledge of Latin was considered indispensable to a good education.  So that is why students of English poetry find themselves faced with these Latin words at the head of the poem:

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

It means, essentially, that the brief (brevis) sum (summa) of life (vitae) forbids/prevents (vetat) us (nos) beginning (incohare) a long (longam) hope (spem).  But we can think of it  as meaning simply:

The Shortness of Life Forbids Us Long Hopes

The phrase comes from lines in Ode 1.4, by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.):

pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas       
regnumque turris. o beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam;

“Still pallid Death is knocking at the hovels of paupers
And the towers of kings.  O happy Sestius,
The short span of life forbids us undertaking long hopes.”

But now to the poem:

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.

Yesterday I discussed Wenlock Edge, by A. E. Housman, in which he tells us that the emotional gale of human life soon wears itself out from its own force and disappears.  Dowson is similarly speaking of the brevity of human emotions.  Weeping and laughter, love and desire and hate, he says, do not last long, and he thinks they end with death (“passing the gate”).

In like manner, he tells us, the days of pleasure and happiness, which he poetically terms “the days of wine and roses,” are not long either.  And as for our short life, it is like a path seen coming out of a mist, then disappearing into that same mist.

It is a variation on an old simile.  The Venerable Bede tells the story of the comment of an advisor to King Edwin of Northumberland:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

But Bede’s simile is more bleak and far less beautiful than Dowson’s “path out of mist” metaphor, which has more the flavor of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s lines:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.             What is life?  A frenzy.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,           What is life?  An illusion,
una sombra, una ficción,                    A shadow, a fiction,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:             And its greatest good is small.
que toda la vida es sueño,                  For all of life is a dream,
y los sueños, sueños son.                    And dreams are dreams.

Dowson’s metaphor reminds me also of a hokku I once wrote from experience, with his poem not at all in mind, and without metaphor:

The river;
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Dowson’s poem is undeniably beautiful:

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.

Happiness is brief, life is short and vague and a mystery, but in reading those lines by Dowson we must say that, as R. H. Blyth once remarked, put that way, it doesn’t sound too bad.

Dowson did have a sense for the poetic phrase.  Many who have never read his poem know the words “the days of wine and roses,” which were used for the title of a movie about a descent into alcoholism.  And it is from another poem by Dowson (Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae) that the words come which gave the title to Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the famous film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind:

I have forgot much, Cynara!  gone with the wind,
Flung rose, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind…

One writer calls Ernest Dowson “The incarnation of dissipation and decadence,” which combined with the sad beauty of today’s poem, brings to mind the rather indelicate expression that a rose may grow out of a manure pile — the “pile” in this case being Dowson’s decadent and deadly habits.  For him, the combination of an excessive lifestyle and alcoholism with his tuberculosis proved quickly fatal.  He died a few months beyond his 32nd year.

David

ON WENLOCK EDGE: THE GALE OF LIFE AND EMOTION

Today we turn again to one of my favorite poets, Alfred Edward Housman, and to his poem On Wenlock Edge.

English: Wenlock Edge
WENLOCK EDGE  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not a difficult poem, but we shall need to make sure we understand Housman’s vocabulary in order to comprehend the poem easily.  As usual, I shall take it part by part:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; 

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

We are in the county of Shropshire, England.  To the south is a large escarpment — a sudden, sharp upward slant of the land that rises to some height above us, and runs for some 16 miles across the countryside.  Its ancient limestone slope is covered in leafy forest.  This is Wenlock Edge.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

THE WREKIN (Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)
THE WREKIN
(Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)

The writer tells us the wood on Wenlock Edge is “in trouble”  meaning it is disturbed, agitated and stormy.  A great wind has come up.  If we look to the Wrekin, the forest on it is tossing in the same wind.  Housman terms the wood on the Wrekin “his [its] forest fleece,” because the wood covers the hill like the fleece on a sheep.  And it “heaves” — the countless branches bending in the wind seem, when seen from a distance, to rise and fall like waves on a green sea.  The gale — the very strong wind — bends (“plies”) the saplings — the slender, flexible young trees — double, bends them nearly to the ground.  And the countless leaves blown away by the awesome force of the gale fall like snow on the waters of the Severn River, which winds between the two heights.   Housman is giving us a scene filled with natural power and motion.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

’Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

The writer, having presented us with an event in the present, now expresses the thoughts it arouses in him.  He tells us the gale once blew like that through “holt and hanger” in a much earlier time.  “Holt” is an old Germanic word (and English, with its Anglo-Saxon ancestry, is a Germanic language) for a wood, a forested area.  “Hanger” also comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term; it means a wood on a slope, like the forest on Wenlock Edge.  The wind blew through those woods “when Uricon the city stood.”  He is taking us back to Roman Britain — Britain after the Romans had invaded and settled there.  His “Uricon” was the Roman city Viriconium/Viroconium, also called Uriconium, which lay where the present day town of Wroxeter lies, several miles west of the Wrekin.  It was the fourth largest Roman City in ancient Britain.

The writer muses that the same strong wind “in the old anger,” (meaning aroused and violent) that now blows on Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin, then blew on the earlier woods of the region when Uricon was a thriving city in Roman Britain.  He speaks of the wind in the old days having “threshed another wood.”  “Threshed” is an agricultural term used for beating ripe grain from stalks.  So, to repeat, Housman means that the same wind he sees blowing the forests of Shropshire also beat on the woods that grew there in Roman times.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

Just as the narrator now stares at the woods bending and waving in the strong wind, in ancient times a Roman would stand there watching the gale-blown woods of that earlier period.  And, the writer opines, the two men — the ancient Roman and the modern British yeoman (here it means a farmer who owns his own land) — are much the same, bodies warmed by human blood, minds troubled by the same human concerns and emotions.

The writer expands on this similarity of old Roman and modern Briton:

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

There — in early Britain — the “gale of life,” the powerful force of life and emotion, blew strongly (“high) through the Roman like a wind blowing through woods “in riot,” that is, with violence and great disturbance.  And now the same, overwhelming force blows through the writer himself.   Housman likens a man under the force of his own internal, powerful emotions and desires to a tree blown by a gale:

The tree of man was never quiet.

And again, the likening of ancient and modern:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The hopes, fears, sufferings and sorrows of humans are the same, whether in ancient times or today, whether in Roman Britain or modern Britain, or anywhere else on earth.

And now he brings us back to the present, to the blowing wind and the agitated trees, for his summation of the matter:

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon. 

As early as the Chinese book the Dao De Jing, it was said that a violent wind does not last the morning.  Our writer tells us that the wind he watches is so violent it will soon be gone.  We must know that he is also speaking here of the strong wind of human life and emotion — it blows so strongly that it too will soon be gone.  We should keep in mind here that Housman is giving us an equation:  wind = the force of life.  We see this made clear in the final two lines:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

And similarly, by extension, our narrator and his troubles will soon be ashes as well.  Nothing lasts, whether it be wind, or trees, or leaves, or sorrow, or joy, or human life.

If we were to express this poem very simply it would be this:

A violent wind is agitating the trees.

The same violent wind I see blowing the woods was seen by a Roman in early Roman Britain.

That Roman and I share the same human blood and human emotions.

Humans are like trees blown in the wind of emotion and desire.

Wind = the force of life and emotion in humans.

A violent wind will not last long.

Human life and emotions do not last long.

As the ancient Roman and his troubles are now nothing but ashes, so shall I and all my troubles be.

Of course Housman’s poetic way of saying it is far more pleasing to read than this kind of prosaic explanation.

As an aside, it might not occur to one immediately, but there is a connection between the name “Wrekin” and the name of the former nearby old Roman city, Viroconium.  Remember that in Latin, a “V” used to be pronounced as a “W.”  So think of “Wrekin” and “Wirocon [-ium].”  Of course the “W” in Wrekin is now silent.

Speaking of the “strong wind of human life and emotion” that is soon ended, we can think of the lines of George Gordon Byron from his poem We’ll Go No More A-Roving:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast…

 
David