NIGHT, COLD, AND AGE

Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.

 

The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

 

One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

QUIET SKIES RUINED: WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY’S “FRIENDS”

Human romantic relationships can be difficult and messy, sometimes leaving a swath of emotional destruction in their wake, not only for those directly involved but also for those who know them.

Today’s poem by William Ernest Henley is precisely on that topic, and it is written with an effective but simple rhythm.  Its subject is that old (but sadly often true) cliché of the wreck of a close relationship by the involvement of one’s romantic partner with one’s long-time friend.

FRIENDS… OLD FRIENDS…

Friends… old friends…
One sees how it ends.
A woman looks
Or a man lies,
And the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies,
Ruined with brawling
And caterwauling,
Enchant no more
As they did before,
And so it ends
With friends.

It is so simply written that its message is all the more effective.  All it takes to end a long and valued friendship is for one’s romantic partner and one’s friend to develop a desire for one another.  And then, suddenly one day, the formerly-oblivious neglected party notices, sees a glance, catches something slightly off in a conversation —

A woman looks
Or a man lies…

That moment of revelation is all it takes to change one’s perception of life; all at once,

…the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies…

are ruined with quarrels, accusations and recriminations.  It taints everything.  Even the pleasure one had in the surrounding sky and earth, in passing clouds and sparkling waters, is gone.  “They enchant no more.”  And that is true as well of the friend and of the romantic partner.  All joy and trust are gone.

Friends… old friends…
And what if it ends?
Shall we dare to shirk
What we live to learn?
It has done its work,
It has served its turn;
And, forgive and forget
Or hanker and fret,
We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
With friends.

Well, what if it all ends?  Shall we ignore the lesson life has taught, shall we try to pretend that nothing has happened, attempt to glue the shattered pieces of friendship back together?  No matter if we try, the result will still be loss.  The experience has done its work, it has accomplished what it must.  And even if we wish to forgive the betrayal, attempt to smile and forget, what was will be no more.  “The fallen flower does not return to the branch.”

We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
With friends.

 

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK: Alfred Edward Housman

Today’s poem, even in its austerity, is one of the great mourning poems of the English language.  Whitman has his poems on the death of Lincoln, but those are “state” poems; Auden has his effectively-overstated “Stop All the Clocks.”  And Housman has this poem, which manages to take us from stiff-lipped objectivity to a moving cry of the heart.  Let’s take it verse by verse:

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that’s due and right
Let’s home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.

The speaker of the poem is in a cemetery.  The church and graveside rites are over, the grave has been filled in and the tombstone set in place.  Out of a grey and darkening sky, the rain beats down on the stone and on the new-piled dirt of the hillock that marks the burial.  The writer speaks in his thoughts to the one buried there, and as he does so, speaks to himself as well.  All has been done that’s due and right — the memorial services and ritual words, the flowers, the black garments.  Yet he stands there in the rain, the freshly-dug clay clinging to his boots.

Now he says farewell:  “My lad, good-night, for I must turn away.”  Everything is ended, including your life and all it meant.  It is time to leave.

Good-night, my lad, for nought’s eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And still he pauses.  “Good-night, my lad,” he repeats, “for nought’s eternal.”  Nothing is forever.  Nothing lasts.  Everything ends.  Even our relationships, yours and mine — that is certain and obvious.  The mourner tries to tell himself that “Tomorrow I shall miss you less.”  This ache of loss, the heaviness of spirit, are things that only time may ease.

Over the hill the highway marches
And what’s beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

The highway — the main road — passes over the hill and beyond into the wide world and all it holds, a world and time that the person in the grave will not see.  The highway means a future, new experiences.  It is a symbol that the mourner’s road of life will continue, while that of the deceased has ended here at this soggy hillock of earth.  Given all that must await out there, the mourner again tells himself that the sorrow and painful memories will gradually fade away; sad thoughts of the deceased will come less and less, until the ache is no longer felt.

The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.

He tells the departed, and in doing so himself, that the skies are not always raining and grey through the year; life now will not always be gloom and sorrow.  There are sure to be sunny times, and the mourner will no doubt have pleasant days, and meet new and good friends in his wanderings.

Through all this he has repeated to himself, in various ways, that the painful memories will lessen, that he will be happy again, that he will make new acquaintances — but at the last verse he drops this would-be objectivity in a wrenching cry of sorrow:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

“The house is fallen that none can build again.”  The house is the body and life of the friend, once filled with joy and hopes.  But now that house is fallen, and none can build it again.  No one can change that.   And the mourner expresses his own profound sorrow and the sorrow of the human condition by projecting it onto the mother of the deceased:

“How full of joy and woe your mother was all those years ago, when in the happiness of having a child and in the pains of childbirth, she brought you into this world.  And now all her hopes and wishes for you have come to nought.  You are dead, and tonight you lie in the earth and the dark and the beating rain.”

Though it is thought that the poem was influenced by the death of Housman’s brother Herbert, who died in Africa in the Boer War, the first draft of the last stanza was actually written before that event.

This verse is number XVIII (18) in the volume titled Last Poems, published in 1922.

 

DUST IN THE WIND: HOUSMAN’S “FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING”

Today we will return to Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad, though we will skip ahead for now to poem #32, which is titled

FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

In stanza one, the speaker tells us that the elements that compose him, body and mind, came together from all directions and were “knit together” into an individual human life.  Though Housman is speaking poetically, we can say that scientifically there is much to what he says.  We are all “knit together” from food that comes from the earth, grown in various places, from water, from the air we breath, from sunlight, and from all the elements that compose our bodies and those of our ancestors, which scientists tell us, are ultimately made of the dust of exploding stars.

The speaker says all that makes him comes “from far, from eve and morning,” meaning from East and West, from where the sun sets and where the sun rises, from light and from shadow.  It all somehow “blew together” into an identity, a sense of self.  And so, seemingly out of nothing, “Here am I.”

When he speaks of “yon twelve-winded sky,” we see Housman’s classical background.  The modern  “compass rose” that backs a compass needle shows eight, sixteen, or thirty-two points or directions.  But Housman is using the old “wind” directions of the classical Greek and Roman world, which has twelve winds of different directions blowing in the sky, as in this illustration.  The wind names in blue are Greek, in red Latin.  Houseman knew both languages.

Now that the elements have “blown together” into an individual, that individual speaks to another:

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

“I am only  pausing here for a short time,” he says,” before I dissolve and return to the elements;  so connect with me quickly — take my hand and tell me what you think and feel.”  He likens the brief span of human life to the taking of a breath.  That is in harmony with his mention of the twelve winds, and of the materials of his life being “blown hither” (blown here); and the breath  is also a very ancient symbol of life and the spirit.  So he is saying, “Quick, tell me your hopes and fears while we have this brief moment of life together, do not miss the opportunity, because soon I will be gone again.”

He tells his temporary companion,

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

He is saying, “If you open yourself to me, I will respond; tell me what you need, how I can help you in this life.  But be quick about it, because soon it will all be over and the ingredients that make up my being will disperse, and I will be gone.”

It is not difficult to see that the point of this simple but well-written poem is that life is very short, and we have only a brief opportunity in which to relate to  and help another being, and then we will be gone again.   Just as we are blown together from all directions of the winds, so we will fall apart again and disperse back into the universe.  It reminds me of  a line from the song “Pastures of Plenty”:

I come with the dust, and I’m gone with the wind.”

But we can go farther back to Fitzgerald’s rendition of a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water, willy-nilly flowing; 
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

David

ELECTED SILENCE: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

Today we shall “translate” another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oddly but interestingly-worded poems into easily-understandable English. It is his very overtly religious poem,

THE HABIT OF PERFECTION

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

The title requires some explanation. “Habit” here does not mean a repeated behavior like a “smoking habit”; it means “habit” as in a religious garment like that worn by a Roman Catholic monk or nun. So this poem is about metaphorically “putting on the garment of perfection.”

An “elected” silence is a chosen silence, a silence not forced on someone, but chosen by them. Hopkins addresses that chosen silence as if it were a person, saying “Chosen silence, sing to me.” He asks Silence to “beat upon my whorled ear,” meaning to let him hear not sounds, but silence. By “whorled,” which he accents to be pronounced as “WHOR-led,” he is simply describing the curved shape we see in everyone’s ears.

He asks this personified Silence to “Pipe me to pastures still.” He is speaking of silence as though it were actually sound, asking it to Pipe him to quiet “fields.” “Pipe” here means to play a blown musical instrument, like the flute the Pied Piper of Hameln used in the old story to lead children into a mountain, or like the bagpipes a scottish piper plays to formally lead people into a dinner or ceremony. So Hopkins calls on Silence to lead him into quiet and restful peace, to be the soundless “music that I care to hear,” the sound of silence.

Now Hopkins begins to talk to his own body:

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

By “shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb,” he means, “Lips, do not form words, do not speak, be beautifully silent (dumb). And he says it is the closing of the mouth, its silence, that makes it truly eloquent. Truly beautiful speech, he thinks, is silence. This shutting of the lips he calls a curfew. A curfew is a signal sent to people that they must be off the streets and indoors. To hopkins it means leaving the outer world of the senses and going inside one’s self. This curfew of silence is sent “from there where all surrenders come,” which is the willingness of the person to give himself over, in Hopkins’ view, to the impulses sent from God.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

To be shelled (again, Hopkins wants us to pronounce it in two syllables as “SHEL-led” here means to be covered. It is likening the eyelids to two shells that cover the eyes when closed. That is why he says that closing the eyes will cover them “with double dark,” meaning not only the darkness behind each of the two eyelids, but the darkness in both eyes.

This “ruck and reel” — the outer crowd of things and movement that the eyes ordinarily — “remark” (notice) and pay attention to, “coils keeps and teases” simple sight. It captures it, like a vine coiling about a plant, it keeps (holds) it, it teases (distracts) it. Hopkins simply means that to enter silence one should shut the eyes to the events and movements of the outer world, because they hold back and confuse true sight, the simple “primary” sight that is the inner vision of the divine not seen by physical eyes.

Now he moves on to addressing the inside of the mouth:

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

He tells the palate, which he calls the cage (hutch) of the desire (lust) for pleasant tastes, not to desire to be “rinsed with wine,” not to desire to drink wine. That is because, he imagines, the can (here it means a cup or cup-like container) must be so sweet, and the crust (bread) so fresh when one is abstaining from food in a religious fast. Hopkins is saying that abstaining from the physical pleasures of food and drink brings spiritual pleasures of “divine” food that are far sweeter and more fresh than material food. So we see that in this poem he speaks paradoxically of silence as the “true” sound, looking inward as the “true” sight, and fasting (abstaining from food) as the “true” food.

Now he turns to addressing the nose:

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

He tells the nostrils that waste their breath on the arousing and maintaining of pride (like someone with his “nose in the air”), that there is something far better for them if one turns inward — then what “relish” (great enjoyment) shall the censers (incense burners) send along the sides of the sanctuary (within the church) — what a spiritual fragrance one will breathe during the celebration of the mass.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street

And you unhouse and house the Lord.

By his elaborate “feel-of-primrose” hands, Hopkins is addressing simply the sense of touch in the hands that can feel a primrose plant; and he speaks of the same sense of touch in the feet that want the sensation of soft grass (“plushy sward”) beneath them.  “Want” here may also be understood as the lack (feet are denied) the feel of soft grass after one has become a monk.  One may read it with either or both meanings.  Instead of these sensory perceptions, Hopkins says the feet will “walk the golden street,” that is, they will walk in Heaven, and the hands will “unhouse and house the Lord.” In Roman Catholicism, the round and flat “host,” the bread used in the mass, is traditionally believed to become the body of Jesus when it is consecrated. It is kept in small cabinet (the “tabernacle”) with a door on it, and when the priest takes the bread out of the tabernacle or puts it back in, he is “unhousing” and “housing” the Lord, in the Catholic view.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

When someone becomes a Catholic monk, he takes a vow of poverty. So Hopkins pictures this becoming a monk as a marriage ceremony in which the monk marries poverty. And in that symbolic marriage celebration, Hopkins asks Poverty (St. Francis used to speak of her as “Lady Poverty”) to provide “lily-colored” clothes for her husband, clothes “not laboured-at nor spun.” So he means he wants to be clothed in spiritual clothing, not clothes that have been made from cloth spun and woven on a loom. This is actually a biblical reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:28, which in the Douai-Rheims version reads:

And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.

So what is this poem all about? It is about a person choosing a monastic and priestly life, turning away from the pleasures of the senses to the (in Hopkins’ view) superior pleasures of spiritual things, which are just the opposite: Instead of speech, there is silence; instead of pleasant sights, the is the inward “uncreated light” of God; instead of the taste of food and drink, there is the “taste” of not eating for religious reasons — of fasting; instead of the breath perpetuating arrogance, the nostrils will smell divine fragrance; instead of earthly objects pleasant to touch with the fingers or feet, there will be the streets of heaven (metaphorical and literal) and using the hands to place the “host” in the tabernacle; and finally, instead of material clothing, there is the “spiritual clothing” of the monk in poverty.

It is not a perfect poem.  Hopkins stretches things a bit too far at points, such as in his association of the nostrils and arrogance, and the odd preference of walking on golden streets (even if metaphorical) to walking on soft grass, but nonetheless he makes his point that in the religious life, the spiritual is to be preferred to the material.  It seems like the kind of poem a young person would write in a religious enthusiasm, and without the actual experience.  The Habit of Perfection was written in the middle of January, 1866, when the young Hopkins already had becoming a monk on his mind.  Hopkins was only 22 years old, and shortly after the middle of October of that same year, he officially converted to Catholicism.  In September of 1870 he entered the Jesuit order, and the unhappy reality of the rest of his life as a Jesuit did not live up to the youthful and  romanticized idealism of this early religious poem.

 

David

THE WASHING OF THE WORLD: WHITMAN’S “RECONCILIATION”

In the previous posting, I discussed Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. I think of today’s much shorter poem by the same writer as a companion to that longer work. It seems to complete and lay to rest, in peace and simple beauty, the turbulent emotions expressed in the first poem. Both are in his book Sequel to Drum-Taps. The final surrender of Confederate troops had taken place on June 2, 1865, marking the end of the terrible American Civil War that had divided friends, family members, and the country.

When the war first broke out, Whitman began visiting the wounded in New York hospitals. Near the end of 1862, he received word that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, and was in Falmouth,Virginia. Whitman went to care for him, and got his first look at a field hospital and the results of the hasty and primitive surgery of the day. He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening…

From there, Whitman went to Washington, and for the next three years devoted much of his time there as a volunteer nurse and comforter to the wounded and dying of the war. His loving and compassionate nature gave the suffering a care that they desperately needed in those cruel days. He wrote to a friend, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield

Finally, the great tragedy of the Civil War came to and end, and with it came the time for a nation broken by years of violent enmity to unite. Whitman, with his experience of the suffering and death in the war, and with his compassion, wrote this poem:

RECONCILIATION

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

“Reconciliation” is the word over all, the word that covers all the wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, it is — with the sentiments it evokes — “beautiful as the sky.” Its beauty is

that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

Whitman recognizes the place of time in this, as in the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And with time work “the sisters Death and Night.” We have seen Whitman’s praise of Death in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” praised because it brought an end to the suffering of the dying; and here Death’s sister, Night, brings ease through sleep, forgetfulness of the horrors of war. It is beautiful how Whitman personifies them as two sisters, patiently and lovingly washing,

again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

They cleanse the world soiled by hate and war, a task completed not immediately, but by the repetition of their labors through time, so that

war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost.

Whitman shows us the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation in this symbolic image:

… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

To Whitman, human life was sacred. He wrote in Song of Myself,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

It is a view that reflects not only the Quakerism of his childhood, in which every human has the divine within, called the “Inward Light,” but also the influence of Transcendentalism, in which the world is an expression of divinity, and humans all parts of the “Over-soul.”

Reconciliation is made vivid and immediate to us by the image of Whitman walking to the coffin where his enemy lies — in his bending down, and gently kissing the face in the coffin.

Vengeance is a terrible and soul-destroying thing, and Whitman knows that. But beyond that knowledge is the feeling of his inherent sameness with the former enemy,

“a man divine as myself is dead…”

And Whitman sees the great tragedy in that hard fact, the tragedy that was the Civil War. We feel the end of that war in the man lying there; and in Whitman’s kiss, the seal that completes it: Reconciliation.

THANATOPSIS: IF YOU DON’T KNOW LIFE, HOW WILL YOU KNOW DEATH?

I was relaxing in the evening recently when these words began running through my head:

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

I had read the poem, of course, as a boy, and in high school; but I don’t recall having a clear idea about its meaning. In fact this first sentence seemed to me rather complicated gibberish in those days, overdone “poetic” language. But obviously my mind was now suggesting that I revisit it and revise that youthful judgment, as indicated by presenting its opening lines to me suddenly in the still of night.

The poem is called Thanatopsis — a word borrowed from Greek thanatos, meaning “death,” with the suffix –opsis, meaning a view — so a thanatopsis is a “view of death.”

So here, dear reader, is a fresh look at that poem. Yes, its language is old-fashioned, but does it have anything to teach us? We shall see. I will deal with it part by part:


THANATOPSIS

by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

It means simply that Nature speaks in different ways to the person, who, loving Nature, goes into it and experiences it, looking at and appreciating all its visible forms — the trees and hills and rocks and streams, and all things that make up Nature. Bryant speaks of Nature as “she,” something of a tradition in which Nature was seen as feminine — “Mother Nature.” Nature gives birth to all forms, and so we often think of it as mother.

…for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.

When one is cheerful (“gay” used to mean “cheery” in the days before Gay Liberation), Nature speaks with a glad voice, with a smile, and with the eloquence we feel in beautiful things. And when one is in a more gloomy mood, Nature is experienced as mild and gentle, with a healing effect on us that eases such gloomy thoughts before one even notices what is happening. People often like to go out into Nature when things worry or stress or trouble them, because it is felt to be healing.

When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;–

When one thinks of one’s inevitable death coming in the future, one’s “last bitter hour,” such thoughts are killing to the spirit, like a blight on growing crops. We imagine the suffering, and in Bryant’s time the shroud in which the dead body was clothed and the pall — the cloth over the coffin — and the darkness of death and the coffin — the “narrow house,” and one shudders in fear and grows “sick at heart” — very depressed, as we would say today. But, Bryant continues, when such thoughts come, do this:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
Comes a still voice.

Go outside, he tells us, and be under the open sky, and listen to the unspoken teachings of Nature, as all around you, from the ground — from the waters — from the air — there comes a voice that speaks in silence:

…Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.

In only what is, in the vast deeps of time, but a few days, the sun will not shine down upon you as it arcs repeatedly through the sky, because you will be dead and buried; and your image, your form, will no longer exist in the cold ground where it is laid with all the tears of a funeral, nor will it exist if you should drown at sea. Instead, everything will return to its basic elements; your body will decompose and become earth again; every trace of you as human will dissolve, and your individuality as a person will vanish as your body returns to earth to “mix forever with the elements.” It will become soil again, and what previously was “you” will be like the rock that feels nothing, or the insensitive clod of earth that the uneducated man at his plough turns up with the plough blade, then steps upon. The oak tree will spread out its roots as it grows into the earth that formerly was “you” as an individual person, drawing nourishment from it.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent.

But when you die, Bryant tells us, you will not be the first person to do so; you will not lay your body down alone, and the place where you lay down your body could not be a more magnificent bed on which to rest. Why?

Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings,
The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.

When you die and are laid in the earth, you are placed there with the fathers of the young human race who lived thousands of years ago; you will lie down in the same earth with kings and with the great powerful men of the past, with the wise men and the good, with the beautiful, and with the aged and learned men of past ages — the earth, for all of you, becoming one vast and mighty tomb. What does this tomb look like? We already know:

The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, — the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods — rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man
.

The ancient hills, the valleys that like quietly between them, the ancient forests, the majestic rivers and the babbling brooks that water the meadows as they grow green, and the great grey and melancholy empty surface of the sea all serve as decorations for the “great tomb of man” — our Earth itself.

The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death

The golden sun and the planets that revolve about it, and all of the seemingly infinite stars of heaven shine down on the sad realms of death — our Earth — and they do so

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.

All of those people alive today, Bryant says, are only a handful compared to all the great numbers of people that have died and sleep the sleep of death within the ground.

— Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:

“Take the wings of morning” is a biblical reference — Psalm 139:9, which in its context is:

7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

Bryant, like most children at that time, was brought up knowing the Bible. It was the foremost piece of household literature, and all families had a “family Bible” to be read and pondered. So he says if one were to “take the wings of morning,” that is, to fly far across the earth like the dawn to distant places,

And if one were to

Pierce the Barcan wilderness,

In many printings this reads instead:

Take the wings
Of morning–and the Barcan desert pierce,

What is the Barcan Desert? It is a geographical reference that Bryant got from a famous event in the news when he was a boy of eleven. It was during the American war with the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli (now Libya) that in March of 1805, a General William Eaton, of the same valley in Massachusetts as Bryant, took a party of about 400 men from Alexandria in Egypt across some five to six hundred miles of desert to the west; “six private marines, twenty-five cannoneers, thirty-eight Greeks, and some Arab cavalry” as well as a rival pasha and his followers, with baggage carried on 107 camels. With this bizarre army he managed to come from behind on land in the fight against the Barbary Pirates, while the American fleet was in position to attack from the front. This first Barbary War — specifically the Battle of Derna that resulted from Eaton’s crossing and the accompanying marine assault — gave us the “shores of Tripoli” reference in the Marine Hymn. So Bryant used this remembered reference to the burning Desert of Barca or Barcan Desert as an example of a very remote and distant, empty place.

He also used one other geographical reference in his poem, again to indicate a remote and distant place. It too came from a well-known news event of Bryant’s youth. The Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the West was sent out by President Jefferson in 1804. The party passed through a vast and lonely wilderness, at one stage not seeing a single human for some four months of travel. They came to and floated down “The Great River of the West,” which in those days was called the Oregon. Today it is called the Columbia River. When the news of this expedition came out in 1807, Bryant was thirteen. In 1811, at the age of seventeen, he wrote Thanatopsis.

So now you know what this means:

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:

"WHERE ROLLS THE OREGON"
“WHERE ROLLS THE OREGON”

“His own dashings” means the sound of the waters of the river, moving and dashing against the shore; Bryant is saying that one could even go to the vast and little known West of the continent, where the Columbia River rolls through great forests empty of the sounds of civilization, and even there the dead are buried. I live “where rolls the Oregon,” and there is a once well-known island in the river where it passes through the mountains of the Columbia Gorge, called Memaloose Island. Memaloose was Chinook Jargon — the native trade language — for “dead” It was an island of the dead, on which the native peoples of the Columbia placed the bodies of their departed — a place of silence and bleached bones in the midst of the river. So Bryant got that right.

You might wish to know that Bryant mentions the Oregon in another of his poems, The Prairies. In it are the lines

…The beaver builds
No longer by these streams, but far away,
On waters whose blue surface ne’er gave back
The white man’s face — among Missouri’s springs,
And pools whose issues swell the Oregon —
He rears his little Venice.

And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep — the dead reign there alone.

Millions of people, Bryant tells us, have died in those lonely places since time began, and that is a place where the dead reign alone — that is, the dead are more to be found than the living. Bryant, not knowing of all the tribes of the Columbia, was stretching things a bit again, but he wanted to emphasize the great loneliness and emptiness of the little-known far West.

So shalt thou rest — and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.

Bryant tells us that we shall die just like those in the distant regions he has mentioned. And what if we die and no friend is there to witness it? Again the poet emphasizes, you won’t be alone in death, because everything that breathes has died or will die too.

And what will be the effect of our death, which we feel to be such a significant event?

The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom;

The people of cheerful and happy disposition will continue to be cheerful and happy and laughing, and the solemn “brood of care,” meaning “children of sorrow” — the people sad by disposition — will continue to plod sadly on through their lives, and each person will chase after the illusion he favors — some after money, some after power, some after romance, some after fame, and so on — all phantoms that appear only to vanish.

But what of these people, whether they are happy or sad, whom you leave behind on dying?

…yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.

All of them will eventually have to leave behind their joy and their activities, and die and be buried in the earth just as you have been.

Bryant expands on just who it is that dies:

As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men–
The youth in life’s fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.

As the long sequence of ages passes, all “sons of men” — all humans — will die; it does not matter whether they are youths in the springtime of life, or the mature person at the peak of vigor, or mother, or unmarried girl, or infant too young to speak, or the old man with gray hair, one by one they will all join you in death, buried by those who eventually will die themselves and be buried.

And now Bryant comes to the point of all of this talk of the earth being one huge tomb and everyone, past, present and future, dying:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

He tells us that now, knowing that life is brief and death is the common fate of humans and inevitable, we should live our lives in trust of that power which governs all things — Nature. When our time to die nears, when we too join that long line of those passing into death, everyone taking his own resting place in tombs and cemeteries and earth — in “the silent halls of death” — we should be careful how we die. As Confucius said, if we do not know life, how can we know death?

And how we die, Bryant indicates, will depend on how we have lived. If we live a life of trust in Nature and what the people of his time would have called “Divine Providence,” then when we go to our deaths we will not go like the poor slaves who spend their days digging rock in quarries, whipped to their resting places by cruel taskmasters, but instead we shall go peacefully, being a part of the natural process of things — of Nature — and trusting in that unfalteringly, we shall go to our deaths as peacefully and serenely as someone who wraps the covers of his bed around him and lies down to restful sleep and pleasant dreams. This is a very Transcendentalist view that would have been endorsed by Henry David Thoreau, though of course the poem itself was written shortly before the Transcendental movement, and is akin to the notions of “Nature and of Nature’s God” found in the Deism of the late 1700s and early 1800s. It is also tinged with the Roman stoicism that would have been known to young men educated in the classics in Bryant’s time.

Though he worded it all masterfully, in my opinion the youthful Bryant spent so much of the poem telling us of death and emptiness that his final point — that we are just to peacefully trust in Providence/Nature — rather suffers by comparison. Perhaps that is due to his youth and inexperience, but also to the fact, as we shall see, that the point of the poem was tacked on later.

Nonetheless, we must remember that in his time young people had experienced far more of the hard side of life than many of us today. Death was ever-present and far more obvious than it is now. Many children died before their fifteenth year. Sickness and plague came without warning, and formal medicine was so primitive that, as Daniel Scott Smith wrote, “In this epoch, going to the doctor was, if not irrelevant, a positive mistake.” Memorial pictures, showing someone grieving over a decorative tomb, were a common form of popular art. And often the young exposed to such things develop a tendency toward gloom, which, as we can see, Bryant was trying to offset by his advice to just “trust and fear not.” There is likely a considerable amount of whistling in the dark in his words — a conscious effort to convince himself as well as others — but his basic point is valid nonetheless.

In any case, Thanatopsis eventually became immensely popular, and was well-known both in Britain and in America. It became a milestone in American poetry, because there was a general belief at the time that American poets were inevitably inferior to British writers. Bryant’s grandiose language and serious theme was just the ticket to change that perception.

You will notice the archaic “thee” and “thy” language Bryant uses. He was, of course, brought up on the Elizabethan English of the Bible and of Shakespeare, and in his day ordinary “you” and “your” language was considered precisely that — too ordinary for the elevated subject of poetry. So poets continued to pepper their verses with bits of Elizabethan English vocabulary and grammar long after it had died out in common speech. You will also likely notice the influence of Wordsworth and his nature poetry on Bryant, including the notion of the dead being insensate as rocks and clods, as in Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

And you will see the influence of such English verse as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Though Bryant is said to have written Thanatopsis in 1811 (some say shortly thereafter), it was first published in 1817, though not in the form we have it in today. The beginning of the poem — about the first 16-17 verses — were added later; the middle lines were originally spoken by the poet, but later changed to Nature speaking; and about the last 16 concluding lines — in which Bryant makes his stoic point about living in a manner that enables one to die serenely — were also added later.

It all began when Bryant’s father saw some verses written by his teenage son and eventually sent a copy off (as parents will do) to the literary magazine North American Review. That was the beginning of the poem as we know it today, and of Bryant’s position in the history of American poetry. When the poem appeared in print in 1817, it was only two years after the Review — the first American literary journal — was begun.

David

BEAUTY AND PAIN: DE LA MARE’S OLD SUMMERHOUSE

Today I would like to talk about a rather fascinating poem by the unique British writer Walter de la Mare.

It is a simple poem, and does not require much explanation. Its fascination lies in its atmosphere of that mixture of the sense of the passage of time and of sadness in solitude, a feeling we often find in hokku verses. The Japanese call it sabishisa, but we have no adequate single word for it in English, though the translation of the the old Latin expression lacrimae rerum — “the tears of things” — meaning the sadness inherent in the world as it is — points us in the right direction.

Here is the poem:


THE OLD SUMMERHOUSE

This blue-washed, old, thatched summerhouse —
Paint scaling, and fading from its walls —
How often from its hingeless door
I have watched — dead leaf, like the ghost of a mouse,
Rasping the worn brick floor —
The snows of the weir descending below,
And their thunderous waterfall.

Fall — fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more — for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne:
The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;
That music, remote, forlorn.

De la Mare shows us a summerhouse — one of those light and simple outdoor structures in which one can sit out of the direct heat and glare of the sun in summer. It is painted a pale blue, and its paint, applied long ago, is peeling and flaking off the walls. That alone gives us the feeling of time having passed, of a depth of years.

“How often,” he says, “from its hingeless door I have watched the snows of the weir descending below, and their thunderous waterfall.”

He is there now, but he is also — mentally — there in the past. He looks out of the opening in the summerhouse, a “door” that is not really a physical door, just an open doorway — down the slope toward the river and its weir. A weir is a kind of low dam built across a river, over which the waters pour continuously, with a pool held behind it and the flow of the river continuing beyond it. The poet recalls how he has gazed out at that weir in times past, watching its “snows” — meaning the white fall of water cascading over the weir –and listening to “their thunderous waterfall,” the sound of the water plunging down from all along the top of the weir to the river below.

But in telling us that, de la Mare inserts a parenthetical statement to tell us that as he watched the weir, a dry leaf caught in a swirl of wind inside the summerhouse made a dry, rasping sound on the worn bricks of the summerhouse floor, a movement and sound “like the ghost of a mouse.” That too gives us a sense of the passing of time, because the rasp is not “like a mouse,” but rather slightly eerie, like “the ghost of a mouse.” De la Mare enjoys injecting a sense of the eerie into his verses.

He again gives us the sense of the passage of time as he describes further his attention focused on the weir and its falling waters, and what he experiences is

Fall — fall, dark, garrulous rumour.

The sound of the plunging waters is continuous, and though their appearance is white, their sound to him is dark, a garrulous (like continuous, pointless babble) rumour. Here rumour is used to mean a persistent noise.

The poet hears this sound until he can listen no more, and here we get to the heart, the essence of the poem:

–for beauty with sorrow
is a burden hard to be borne:

That is an idea we do not often hear, but it is commonplace in hokku; that in beautiful things there is also sorrow, because beauty is transient in this world. As Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay.” Every adolescent who has a first crush on some beautiful person knows from experience — even though it may be in retrospect — that with beauty comes a pain so deep as to be felt physically.

For de la Mare, that beauty is the faded summerhouse, the rasping leaf swirling on the brick floor, the white water cascading over the weir and its continuous, loud “dark” murmur, and with those,

The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;

And then

That music, remote, forlorn.

Does he hear a distant, lonely melody from a nearby house? Or does he mean only the music of the weir and its sights, or perhaps a remembered melody from the past?

I like to think he means the first, with the sound of the water coming from the river, and the thin, lonely sound of someone playing a piano drifting, half heard, across the lawn to the summerhouse.

A characteristic of de la Mare’s poetry is that he often does not wish to tell us the whole story; he just presents us with an atmosphere, with things caught in the sense of time long passing, and then he lets us feel the emotions and think the thoughts thus aroused within us. Did he come to the summerhouse with sorrow? Or did the sorrow come with the summerhouse?

David

BROOKS TOO BROAD FOR LEAPING, FIELDS WHERE ROSES FADE

Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted down — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a double meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.

David

HEAVEN-HAVEN: REFUGE FROM THE SEA OF TEARS

To better understand today’s poem we must first put ourselves into the mindset of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the year 1864, when the poem was written.    He was a sensitive fellow for whom life in the everyday world was difficult and trying.  He sought (but unfortunately did not find) in conversion to Roman Catholicism, in 1866, a refuge from those daily stresses.

It is also essential that we look at a segment of a much earlier poem by the English poet  (born in Wales) George Herbert (1593-1633), who ended his work The Size with these lines:

Then close again the seam
Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe
In hope of great things.  Call to minde thy dream,
And earthly globe,
On whose meridian was engraven,
These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.

Herbert’s poem, in essence, advises the ordinary person not to expect material happiness in this world, but rather to accept lack of material things in this life so that there might be spiritual rewards in the next.  He says one should not expect joys both in this world and in heaven, because even God (incarnated as Jesus) “was hungrie (hungry) here” (during his lifetime in this world).

So from Herbert’s poem, we should take the notion that to enjoy the pleasures of heaven one must give up material pleasures and strong joys on this earth.  It is an old concept — “self-denial,” — and it is on that notion that Gerard Manley Hopkins based this, one of his best-known poems.  Hopkins even took the title of his poem from the last line of Herbert’s poem: Heaven-Haven.

Hopkins’ poem has as its preface the words “A nun takes the veil,” meaning a young woman commits herself to a lifetime as a nun, leaving the “world” and its pleasures behind in hope of joy in heaven, just as Herbert had advised.  This world, as written in The Size, is nothing but “seas of tears,” and a person on his or her voyage of life through those seas will only find a quiet haven in heaven.  That is the view common to both poems, that of Herbert and that of Hopkins, based on Herbert.

So now you understand Hopkins’ poem before you have even read it; but let’s take a look nonetheless:

Heaven—Haven 

A nun takes the veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be 
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

 We shall approach it part by part.  

The poem is spoken by the nun who is taking the veil, choosing to spend her life as a “bride of Christ.”  She tells us why she is doing it.  She has decided to “leave this world,” to go “where springs not fail,” which is Hopkinsese for “where springs do not fail.”  In the New Testament, water is a symbol of the spiritual and genuine life.  We understand why springs are mentioned by Hopkins (which were also mentioned earlier in Herbert’s poem) when we look at the words of Jesus to the “woman at the well” in the Gospel attributed to John (13-14):

“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”

So in this material world, the springs from which we drink fail, and do not permanently satisfy.  It is only the “waters of life” — of spirituality — that  do “not fail,” and that is what the woman in Hopkins’ poem is seeking.

She wants to go to “fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,” to a place away from the harsh and painful storms of earthly life, where one is no longer subject to the unpleasant hazards and unhappinesses (hailstones are sometimes rounded, but also can be angular, pyramidal, flat, etc. — “sharp-sided,” or in Hopkinsese, “sharp and sided”).  Thinking of heaven as “fields” is a concept as old as the ancient Greeks, with their Elysian Fields.

And a few lilies blow.”

English: Lilium regale 'Album', Parc Floral de...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia

These words are often misunderstood simply because word usage comes into and goes out of fashion over time.  “Blow” is the critical word.  Here it is used in the old sense, meaning “to bloom.”  So the woman leaving the world is saying she wants fields where a few lilies bloom.  She is not saying she wants lilies blowing in the wind.  Lilies are old symbols of purity in Christianity, and the fact that the nun says “a few” is an indication of her modesty and “ascetic” expectations.  She does not expect whole fields of them — just a few, which we may think of as modest pleasures of purity and spirituality.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

In that stanza Hopkins directly addresses the statement of George Herbert:

“These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.”

The nun speaking says (remember the hail?) that she has asked to be in a place “where no storms come.”  We should recall the old days of sailing ships, when to be caught in a storm at sea (here the “sea of life”) was dangerous and violent.  At such a time, a ship would seek a haven, a port out of the reach of the violence of the waves.  But our nun is not looking for “any old port in a storm.”  The haven she seeks is heaven, a place where “no storms come.”

It is a place where “the green swell,” meaning the rising and falling waves of the sea of life, are “in the havens dumb.”  “Dumb” here is used in its old sense of “silent,” and it modifies not “havens,” but rather “the green swell.”  Put into modern English it would be, “Where the green, swelling waves are quiet in the havens.”  In a haven, the great waves found on the sea become small and calm, because the haven is a port, like a bay, that offers a ship protection, a place “out of the swing of the sea,” out of the great motions and upheavals and risings and fallings of the waves on the open sea.

So in essence, “Heaven-Haven” is a brief poem about a nun who “takes the veil” permanently, joining convent life and leaving the temporary pleasures and many pains of the material life behind in hope of the simple and pure and protected joys of the spiritual life, ultimately of heaven.  One cannot, she believes (as Mary told Bernadette in the story of the apparitions at Lourdes), be happy both in this world and the next.  So our nun is giving up this life for her humble hopes of joy in the next life.

Well, that is the religiously romantic view of things, and it is the view Hopkins had as a convert to Catholicism.  He had a rather miserable life after conversion and becoming a Jesuit, and he must have often told himself, when in the depths of depression, that one should not expect to be happy in this world, only in the next.

The poem takes on a rather darker face when seen against the backdrop of Hopkins’ own unhappy religious life, but the poems we read are also affected by our own personal experiences in life.

For me, Heaven-Haven will always remind me of a sunny day in my college years, when I stopped at a Carmelite convent near the sea, just south of what was then a much quieter town, Carmel, in California.  There I interviewed a nun for a project I was doing.  I wanted to know her view of why one would spend one’s life in that way.  She was a calm and very pleasant person, and the location itself was quiet and peaceful.  A short distance to the west of the convent lay a pleasant little sandy bay “out of the swing of the sea,” and the air of the whole region was fragrant with the wild artemisia that scented the coastal lowlands and hills in those warm days.

Thinking of the nuns in that quiet place by the sea, I recall lines from another poem about the 6th-century Celtic saint Govan, who lived as a hermit by the sea in Wales:

St Govan still lies in his cell
But his soul, long since is free,
And one may wonder – and who can tell-
If good St Govan likes Heaven as well
As his cell by that sounding sea?

By the way, George Herbert’s poem The Size also contains an old English proverb that goes back before his time.  In telling people that they should not expect to be happy both in this world and the next, Herbert says,

Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?

If that phrase puzzles you, it means, “Do you want to both eat your cake and still keep it?”  One obviously cannot do both, and that is why our nun in Heaven-Haven gives up earth for heaven.

David

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 subjective stanza — 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

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

HEAVEN-BARN: HOPKINS’ STARLIGHT NIGHT

There is no quick reading of some poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Slow going and thought are essential to picking out his meaning from his often odd phrasing, uncommon word choices, and lack of complete clarity.

The Pleiades on Ektachrome 100 film in 1986

Such a poem is The Starlight Night.

In it, as in some of his other poems such as The Windhover, Hopkins mixes Nature with aspects of his adopted religion, Roman Catholicism.  He often uses the former (Nature) as an introduction to the latter (religion).

Without careful reading, this poem would quickly dissolve into incoherency after its simple beginning.  And even with care, as we shall see, there are some ambiguities in interpretation.  But let’s give it a try nonetheless.

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

Hopkins urges the reader to look up at the stars in the night sky.  He compares the stars to living beings of fire, to “fire-folk” sitting in the air.   And he likens the groupings and clusters of stars to “bright boroughs,” that is, to star towns, and to “circle-citadels,” to fortresses within the circle of the night sky, like the fortress refuge within or above an old town in medieval and renaissance times.  We might also understand “circle-citadels” to refer to the circular dots of light in the sky that are stars.

Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

There are two possible interpretations of that. The first is to understand it as referring to the sky, seeing it as having dim woods (dark areas)  and “grey lawns” (the “Milky Way”).  The second interpretation, which perhaps makes more sense, is to understand it as viewing the stars from different locations — from within a dim wood where the trees are bare, so the stars may be seen among the dark night branches as “diamond delves,” (diamond caves or hollows, from an old meaning of “delve”) and as “elves’-eyes” (bright, sparkling eyes of supernatural creatures).  Also as stars viewed from grey (all colors turn grey or black at night) lawns where “quickgold” lies, meaning that golden stars (a likeness here to “quicksilver”) lie upon (above) the night lawn like shining, fluid gold.  Neither interpretation comes off perfectly, and we may see this as a flaw in Hopkins’ communication of meaning.

Wind-beat whitebeam!  airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!  

Hopkins gives us more metaphors for stars:  he tells us they are “wind-beat whitebeam!”  A whitebeam is a tree that has clusters of little white blossoms in the spring, so a “wind-beat” whitebeam is one that scatters its white blossoms (i.e. stars) in the wind.  He also likens them to another English tree, to white poplars (“abeles”) “set on flare,” that is, with branches set alight with burning stars like torches.  He further likens the stars to “flake-doves,” that is, to flakes of scattered light like bright, white doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard.

Ah, well!  it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

The starry skies described in the poem are “a purchase” — something to be bought — as well as “a prize”  something won as an achievement, something to be highly valued.

The first part of the poem is designed to draw the attention of the reader to the stars and their glittering, sparkling beauty.  Hopkins is like a man selling his wares in a marketplace; he first shouts out to catch your attention and fix it on what he is selling (stars, in this case), and then he urges you to buy and tells you the price:

Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, alms, vows.

With that line we realize that the long beginning of the poem was just an introduction, a sales pitch for selling his religious notions.  This will be elaborated as we continue.  Having shown us the wonders of the stars in the night sky, Hopkins tells us we should then “buy,” should “bid,” meaning to offer a price for the stars.  And what is the price?

It is prayer; it is patience; it is alms (money or goods given to the poor); it is vows (promises to perform this or that religious and/or moral act).  In short, it is a religious life that will enable one to purchase the starry sky.  That is the price.

Now this is an odd notion.  Why would one want to purchase the stars in the night sky?  Before he tells us, Hopkins returns to his colorful sales pitch, directing our attention back to the stars:

Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

By “mess” here, Hopkins means a quantity, a large number (of stars), like white blossoms on the boughs of fruit trees in an orchard in May.  Then he likens the starry sky to sallows (willow trees) in early March that “bloom” with their catkins that release a golden dust like yellow flour (meal) — a comparison to the stars dusted like willow pollen across the sky.

Now we come to the point of the whole thing, and are told at last what Hopkins is selling:

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks.  This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

All of the bright stars in the sky, which Hopkins has compared to fire-folk, to bright boroughs, to circle citadels, to diamond caves and elves eyes, to quickgold, to blossoming or fiery trees, to doves, to willow pollen, all of these comprise, to Hopkins, a structure, a building.  Hopkins likens it to a barn, and inside the doors of that barn (“withindoors”) are housed the shocks, meaning here the bundles of cut grain.  This is an old Christian symbol for human souls, who are to be harvested into heaven as in the old Protestant hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  So we see that Hopkins views the starry sky as the great heavenly barn in which redeemed souls are housed, and not only souls.  He goes on to tell us,

This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Hopkins takes his likening of the starry sky to a heavenly barn one more step; he compares it to a “piece-bright paling,” a barrier (like a fence or palisade), a wall of bright stars pieced together (each star a “piece”) that “shuts” (encloses) Christ in his home, that is, in heaven —  the great barn of heaven; and with him are his mother Mary (very important in Catholic teaching as an intercessor for humans) and “all his hallows,” meaning all of the saints of Christ.  “Hallows” (“holy ones”) is an old term for saints, which is why we have All Hallows Eve, the evening before the day on which all saints are celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church — the origin of our modern festival name “Halloween.”

Christ himself is the “spouse,” which is a notion derived from the New Testament, in which the Church and those in it are the “bride of Christ.”  It is also a term significant in monasticism, because nuns are considered to be married to Christ as their spouse.

The appeal of this poem lies in its colorful imagery and alliteration — “fire folk,” “diamond delves,” etc., rather than in its overall meaning, which takes a great deal of effort to extract.  That difficulty and its spotty ambiguity make this one of Hopkins’ less successful efforts as a whole, which is why people tend to remember the clear and bright parts of the poem — like the first two lines — and forget the rest.

I have compared this poem to a sales pitch for Hopkins’ adopted Roman Catholic religious views (he was a convert), but given his introversion and persistent state of depression after his conversion, one is left with the feeling that the person Hopkins was really trying to sell on these religious views was himself.

David

ELEGY TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG

English: Study

Today I want to talk again about a poem by one of my favorite writers, Alfred Edward Housman.  He was, you may recall, a classicist — a professor of Greek and particularly of Latin, and in his poems we often sense the depth that background gives as he mixes the atmosphere of the English town or village with the lingering fragrance of the classic Greco-Roman world of antiquity.  In this poem we shall see also that he uses a mixture of objectivity and metaphor, that is, he speaks of things as they are while also speaking of  things or events in order to mean something else.

Housman was, as I have said before, a poet very much aware of impermanence, and so in that respect his poems are like hokku, which always has as its background the transience of life, the impermanence of all things.

One of his finest poems is this — To an Athlete Dying Young.

I will discuss it stanza by stanza:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Housman is speaking to the athlete, recalling a past day on which the lad won a foot race.  He represented his town and thereby earned it and himself respect, so he was chaired through the market place.  That means the jubilant and proud people sat him on a chair or bench, and lifted him to their shoulders, carrying him through the market place — the real center and heart of the town — to honor him.  And as he was carried shoulder-high in triumph through the streets, the boys and the men cheered, and he was brought in that way to the door — the threshold — of his own home.

Now watch how Housman uses this past incident, bringing it into the present, and using the past realistically and the present metaphorically:

Today, the road all runners come, 
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Now we have come from remembrance of things past to the present.  The athlete — still a lad — has died early, while still a youth.  We are not told why he died, but we know it is just a hard fact.  So today, on the road all runners come, he is again brought home shoulder-high.  Here Housman uses metaphor.  By runners, he is speaking of the “race of life,” the course of life from birth to death.  So all who are alive are runners in this sense.  An old expression used by people near death was, “My race is almost run.”  But this lad has ended his race; he has died.  And now on the road all runners come — the road to the graveyard — he is once more brought home shoulder-high as his coffin is carried on the shoulders of the mourners.  They set him down at his new threshold — the grave — and he makes the transition from being their townsman in life to being a townsman of a “stiller town.”  By that is meant the silence of the cemetery and of death.  Henceforth he will be one of the quiet community of the dead.

Housman now does something we find in other poems of his, which is to speak paradoxically.  He does this through the contrast of telling the athlete that in spite of the sad situation, the boy was smart to die:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose. 

You were smart, he says, to slip away from life “betimes” — meaning “early” here — because the fields of life — by which he means first the athletic fields and by extension the world itself — are places where glory does not stay.  Fame and the praise of the public do not last.  And, he says, though the laurel grows early, it withers more quickly than the rose.  We must not take this literally.  What Housman means is that though one may be crowned with laurel at an early age — the branches of the laurel were traditionally used to crown a victorious athlete in the Greco-Roman world — the laurel (by which he means fame) nonetheless fades more quickly than a real rose drops its petals.  Housman is emphasizing how brief and transient fame and praise are.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Eyes shut by the “shady night” — by death, that is, cannot see the athletic record one has set broken; and to one whose ears are stopped by earth — plugged with the earth of the grave — there is no distinction between cheers and silence.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

What excellent lines those are!  Now, he tells the athlete, you will not swell (increase) the rout (rabble-like crowd) of those who lived beyond the time of their youthful athletic glory.  The athlete, by dying young, will not be one of those men whom renown outran.  “Whom renown outran” means that their glory and praise reached its end long before the man reached his own end of life.

We all know what he means by this.  There are countless young people who seemingly reach their peak in high school or college — the quarterbacks and the gymnasts and the runners — and then the rest of their lives is a letdown to them; they become menial workers in jobs they hate, and some even become alcoholics or drug addicts, because they cannot get used to the great contrast between their lives in the “glory days” of high school and their dull present lives.  So they are “Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.”  They are now nobodies; people have forgotten them.  The name — that is the fame of the person — has died long before the man himself has died.  This last line — “The name died before the man” — is exquisite, one of those lines that can be applied to countless individuals who, once famous and well-known, have been forgotten.  The common, cruel expression used of such people is “He peaked too early.”  But Housman tells his athlete that he has avoided this sad fate by dying early, when he was still famous and praised and loved by his townsmen.

Because of all this, Housman begins his final words to the departed lad:

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup. 

To the dear boy who is making the transition from the world of the living to the silent world of the dead, Housman says encouragingly that he should let his swift feet now step upon and cross the “sill of shade” — the border that marks off the living from the dead just as a doorsill separates the outside world from the inside world of the home.  And, he adds, do it before the echoes fade — before the shouts of those who cheered you and praised you in life have died away in forgetfulness of you.  And here again Housman speaks metaphorically, not literally:  He tells the lad to hold the cup he won — the award given him for winning the race — up to the low lintel.  By that Housman is again using his past-present analogy — his comparison of the door of the house to the edge of the grave.  The lintel of a door is the beam across the top.  The lintel of a grave is the lid of the coffin.  By this he means that the athlete may die without ever losing his glory; he can hold up his metaphorical award cup in the grave forever, and never lose it as would likely have happened in life when beaten by another, or beaten by the changes of time and the forgetfulness of others.

In this following last stanza Housman so closely mixes the sentiments of the ancient world with British town and village life that the two cannot be separated, and really that is the nature of the whole poem:

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s. 

When the athlete has stepped across the sill separating life from death, when he is in the land of the dead, the other spirits — “the strengthless dead” (which is a concept as old as the ancient world) — will gather about the lad and will see the laurel wreath of victory still unwithered on the curly hair of his head.  In life the laurel crown — meaning victory and fame — is all too brief, shorter even than the quickly-wilting garlands of flowers the village girls weave in spring and summer to wear in their hair.

If this were the only poem Housman had ever written, he would still be famous for it, which is rather paradoxical:  the renown of the dusty professor of Latin has outlived the athletic field victories of all the golden boys who studied under him in England before the Second World War.  But we sense his love of them in this poem.  It is their memorial.

The poem calls to mind the epitaph to a youth attributed to Plato, from the Greek Anthology:

Before you shone as Morning Star among the living;
Now you shine as Evening Star among the dead. 

ἀστὴρ πρὶν μὲν ἔλαμπες ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν Ἑῷος·
νῦν δὲ θανὼν λάμπεις Ἕσπερος ἐν φθιμένοις.

It was written for a youth named Aster, meaning “Star.”  The Morning Star was Eosphoros, the “Dawn-bringer”; the Evening Star Hesperos.

David


THOMAS HARDY ON AGING: I LOOK INTO MY GLASS

Thomas Hardy, by Walter William Ouless (died 1...
The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I happened upon an obituary for the younger brother of someone I knew many years ago.  It had a photo.  When I last saw him, he was a good-looking boy of about 13 years.  It was a shock to see what time (and I suspect smoking) had done to him.

Thomas Hardy wrote a sad poem about aging.  It is not like the TV commercials that tell older people their golden years have come, that life is just going to get better and better.   Instead it is a very realistic look at aging and a lonely life.  Let’s examine it part by part:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

One may think of this as spoken by a man or a woman, but given that it was written by a man, that is the course we shall follow.

Hardy says he looks “into my glass,” meaning his “looking glass,” an old term for a mirror.  And when he looks into the mirror, he sees what all old people see — his “wasting skin.”  “Wasting” here means just what happens to the skin as one ages — it dries and wrinkles and discolors, it loses its fresh appearance, and it is obvious that it has lost its strength and youth.  Its former smoothness and tautness is gone.   The term reminds us of a “wasting disease,” one that gradually consumes the body and its tissues.  So Hardy looks in a mirror and sees in his aging skin and features that he is subject, as  Buddhism would say, to sickness, to old age,  and to death.

By “Would God it came to pass,” he means “I really wish it had happened that….”  People once used expressions like this, and sometimes still do, such as “I wish to God I had studied for that exam!”  But why does he wish his heart had shrunk too?

When Hardy speaks of his heart, he is actually talking about his emotions — about his ability to love and to be hurt.  It was once thought (and we still speak of it that way) that the heart was where the human emotions were centered in the body.  That is why we hear people say, “She was heartbroken when her boyfriend left her.”  So Hardy is saying that he wishes his emotions — his capacity to love and be hurt — had shrunk as thin as his skin — had weakened and lost strength like the skin of his face and neck in the mirror.  But why?  He tells us:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He wishes his emotions had weakened so that he, “undistrest,” meaning without distress — without mental suffering — could “lonely wait” his endless rest.  By this he means that he could wait alone for death (“endless rest”) to come, without being hurt so much by the people who formerly seemed to like or love him, but who now ignore him, “by hearts grown cold to me.”  If his ability to “feel” had shrunk like his skin, the coldness of other people would not hurt him as it obviously does.

This is a common complaint of the old.  Not only are their friends and relatives dying, but also the living people around them — often younger — find old people no longer interesting, so they begin to ignore them, to make excuses for why they have not visited or called.  Loneliness is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  And sometimes that is as true for people who have children as for those who do not.

In keeping with this, I recently heard a few clever words that are often all too true.  A man said,

When I was in my teens, I used to worry constantly about what other people were thinking of me.  Then when I got past 40, I began not to worry so much what other people thought of me.  Now that I am in my 60s, I realize that nobody thinks of me at all.”   There is an old song with the line, “Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.”  Gay people have their own version: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gay.”

Both mean the same thing.  When youth and good looks or beauty pass — when you are no longer a possibility for romance, which depends so much on youth and appearance — others lose interest.  As people get older, they gradually become first insignificant and then increasingly invisible to the young.  They often simply do not matter any more.

Hardy was obviously very hurt by all of this, and that is why he wrote:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He continues:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Time, of course, is what ages us and steals our youth.  Hardy sees time as a negative force — a force that to make him miserable,  “part steals, part lets abide.”  The part it steals is of course the freshness and youthfulness of his face and body, which is now looking shrunken and wrinkled; and the part it “lets abide” — allows to remain — is Hardy’s ability to feel strong emotion and to be deeply hurt by the indifference and coldness of other people toward him.

It is precisely this continuing ability to be hurt and made very unhappy by others that “shakes this fragile frame” (meaning his weakening, aging body) “at eve, with throbbings of noontide.”

Hardy is using “eve” (evening) in a dual sense; he means by it both the “evening” of life — old age — which comes before the “night” of death” — and he means, I think, the evening of the day, when one is often alone with one’s thoughts and emotions.  It is at this time — in the evening of life and in the evening of each day — that Hardy’s fragile, aging body shakes with sorrow and weeping, with the “throbbings of noontide,” meaning the emotions of the height of one’s life that do not weaken and shrink as one grows older; so while the skin wrinkles and loses its vigor, the emotions, Hardy says, unfortunately and definitely do not.  That is why he is left hurt and shaking with weeping and alone in the evening of his life, in the evening of the day.

It is a simple poem, but very powerful and representative of the feelings of countless lonely, elderly people.  It is definitely what I call an “old man’s poem,” or an “old woman’s poem.”  And it is brutally honest.

It is hard for young people to grasp the reality of such a poem, because inherently — like Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill — young people feel the world is theirs, that they will live forever.  Intellectually they know that is not true, but they do not yet realize and fully grasp the fact.  That is why aging is such a shock to many people.  And in a culture in which youth and beauty are so glorified, we have the sad picture of people trying to stave off or deny the inevitable — plastic surgeries, hair dyes, and endless other processes or products intended to mask the realities of life and time.

The problem for the young in understanding this poem, then, is not so much in understanding it intellectually, which can be easily aided by explanations such as I have given here.  The problem lies, rather, in their difficulty in feeling how deeply true it is, because it expresses one of the fundamental realities of life — that everything is transient, that ultimately there is nothing to hold onto, neither person nor object, that there is no material,  unchanging island in a sea of change.  A young person who realizes that is mature beyond his or her years.  But generally it is something the young do not wish to think about.

David

POETRY, VERSE, PLASTIC FLOWERS AND INTELLECTUALISM

When it comes to the evaluation and criticism of poetry, all is opinion and personal taste.  Taste, it is true, can be developed, but who can say that a man’s liking for a painting of waterlilies by Monet is any more sincere than the liking of some people for plastic or silk flowers?

I have always had a great deal of difficulty in trying to initiate people into the appreciation of the hokku as opposed to modern haiku, precisely because of that difference in taste.  To me the preference for modern haiku is akin to those who are still on the plastic flowers level, but in spite of that one must recognize that people will like what they will like, and even the old Latin saying tells us that there is no arguing about taste.

Nonetheless, people will argue.  And of course people will criticize, whether the work in dispute is a painting or a poem.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully and adequately defined poetry.  Alfred Edward Housman made a useful distinction between poetry and verse:  he said that the former is literature, the latter is not.  So William Blake may present us with poetry, while Hallmark is likely to give us only verse.

As for the nature of poetry, Housman fell back upon his version of the common saying of the uneducated buyer of antiques:  “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.”  Housman, however, put it this way when asked for a definition:

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.”

And that is indeed how most of us recognize what we call poetry — because of its effects on us.  Yet that leaves us back where we started:  individual ability to recognize poetry is a matter of education and taste.  Generations were moved by Trees, written by Joyce Kilmer, verse that to me is unquestionably on the “plastic flowers” level, and unbearable to read.

So there are differences in taste, and these differences are largely a matter of personal preference and education.  An unsophisticated taste in verse will leave one liking Trees.  An educated taste will find it appalling.  That is just one of the realities of life.  We may say that one who dislikes Trees has good taste while one who likes it has bad, yet that again is just a matter of personal taste and personal opinion.  It simply means that to us, “good” taste means educated and experienced taste, while “bad” taste means uneducated and inexperienced.

That is why I look on the bulk of modern haiku as simply bad taste.  I have had the benefit of knowing what hokku once was, and can recognize that modern haiku is just a mutated offshoot, the distorted creation, largely, of mid-20th century would-be poets who misperceived and misunderstood the nature of the hokku, and so created the “haiku” according to their own misconceptions.  If I had not had that education and experience, however, I might likely hold a different and less “advanced” view.

Housman tells us that poetry is not dependent upon meaning; that in fact there is much writing that is poetic yet devoid of real meaning.  And indeed, he tells us, some of the most poetic writers — among them William Blake — were actually mad to a greater or lesser degree.

I have to say that Housman is correct.  There are some works that have the logic of bedlam, yet are very poetic, such as the lines from Xanadu,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

We should not be surprised to learn that Xanadu is forever unfinished because Coleridge, while writing down the poem, which had come to him in an opium dream, was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, and the remainder was forgotten.  It is mad poetry, but poetry nonetheless, and that is why it persists in finding a place in college anthologies.

Not all that appears in such anthologies is poetry, however.  Some of it is merely prose disguised as poetry, and that can be said of a good part of what has been written in the 20th century.  There is, for example, a good deal of attention given to the “rediscovered” verses of Lynette Roberts, but quite honestly I can find hardly more poetry in some of her writing than in a waiter’s description of the lunch menu, for example the beginning of her Poem from Llanybri:

If you come my way that is … 
Between now and then, I will offer you 
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank 
The valley tips of garlic red with dew 
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank 
In the village when you come. At noon-day 
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl 
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray 
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,
In the old way you’ll understand…

Yes, it has some Welsh terms like cawl (a kind of Welsh version of Irish stew) and “savori fach” — her spelling of Welsh safri fach — “little savory,” which is the herb Satureja montana, Winter savory in English), and mention of the traditionally Welsh “lover’s spoon,” but in my view that hardly qualifies it for the acclaim it presently receives.  So even though I have a weakness for things Welsh, I cannot, using Housman’s criterion, recognize “Llanybri” as poetry because of the absence of symptoms evoked by it.  So for me, it is merely verse.  “Swank” by the way, is used here as a verb meaning to “ostentatiously display.”  Oddly enough, Roberts eventually gave up writing after converting to the fundamentalistic, mind-controlling sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Much of what has been written as poetry in the 20th century onward remains for me merely verse.  It has become too intellectualized, too consciously clever, too conventionally “poetic” according to what fashion at present considers poetry to be.  And the real poetry has been lost in the process.

What passes for poetry these days is little advanced from what it was in Louis Macneice:  a kind of over-intellectualized verbal assembly that seems to come from too much association with other “poets,” who encourage each other unhealthily into more and more writing with less and less poetry in it, for example these lines from Snow by Macneice:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.  I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

All intellectualism, no poetry.  Macneice only talks about the “drunkenness of things,” but Coleridge, in Xanadu, gives it to us directly and unmediated.

All too often, modern would-be poets think that merely dividing prose into the lineation of poetry makes poetry.  It does not.  Yet this kind of pseudo-poetry, found often in the writings of Gary Snyder and many others, in my view, has even made its way into present-day college anthologies.  One can only hope that young poets will remain uninfluenced by their example, but so far that does not seem to be the case.  More and more genuine poetry has given way in English-language writing to mere lineated prose or  surrealistic constructions of words used in odd ways.

One may bemoan what has become of poetry, but then poetry has a very limited space in modern life.  It has become largely the province of those who want to think of themselves as poets or as poetic, a very ingrown little society that appears to be securely walled off from the rest of the world.  Would-be poets seem to write for, and be read by, other would-be poets.  That means a particular negative trend, if found in poetry journals and anthologies, can grow and overwhelm a period of writing like a tsunami.  It seems we are at present the victims of such a flood of bad taste in the “world of poetry,” and we can only hope that a recovery and reconstruction will come soon.

That, however, requires education.  It requires experience.  It requires stepping out of the limited and limiting circle of present-day poetry, so that the individual may rediscover what Housman found to be true –that poetry is recognized by its effect on us.  But there are effects and effects, and all too many people seem to have lost or forgotten the symptoms created by genuine poetry, and are settling for mere intellectualism and peer approval.  Both are death to poetry.

But again, that is personal taste and opinion.  So I encourage readers not to think they must like a poem simply because it is printed in a college anthology, or dislike a poem because it finds no place in such a work.  Educate your taste.  Experience poetry from all periods and of all kinds.  Do not rely merely on the opinions of “authorities” for your taste in poetry.  Take them into account if you will, but do not accept them uncritically.

David