GERANIUMS AND POVERTY

Today’s poem is by Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), one of the “Georgian” poets — so

called after the reign of King George V of England, who took the throne in 1910.  Five volumes — anthologies — of the Georgian poets were published from 1912-1922, and this poem from Gibson’s book Fires (1912) was included in Georgian Poetry: 1911-12.  It does not require a great deal of explanation, but is interesting for its combination of sensory impressions and narrative.  Gibson was criticized for his choice of lowly subjects — “common” poor and working class people — though, as Geraldine P. Dilla wrote in the Sewanee Review (January, 1922), “…Mr. Gibson portrays the wrongs of society without proposing remedies.

GERANIUMS

Stuck in a bottle on the window-sill,
In the cold gaslight burning gaily red
Against the luminous blue of London night,
These flowers are mine: while somewhere out of sight
In some black-throated alley’s stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.

Broken with lust and drink, blear-eyed and ill,
Her battered bonnet nodding on her head,
From a dark arch she clutched my sleeve and said:
‘I’ve sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite …
Son, buy six-pennorth; and ‘t will mean a bed.’

So blazing gaily red
Against the luminous deeps
Of starless London night,
They burn for my delight:
While somewhere, snug in bed,
A worn old woman sleeps.

And yet to-morrow will these blooms be dead
With all their lively beauty; and to-morrow
May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow
Of that old body with the nodding head.
The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,
She’ll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep;
Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.

The poet, while walking in London, was accosted by a bleary-eyed, sick looking, alcoholic old woman in a battered bonnet, who stepped out from the shadow of an arch and clutched his sleeve, desperate to sell him the bunch of geraniums she held out imploringly.  She tells him

“I’ve sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite …
Son, buy six-pennorth; and ‘t will mean a bed.”

She had not eaten that day because she had no money to buy food.  And if he were to buy six pennies worth, she would be able to pay for a bed, in some cheap flophouse, on which to rest that night.

So the poet buys the geraniums, places them in his window, and gazes at the blazing red flowers set against the darkness of the London night.  He is delighted by their color, but cannot separate the image from that of the poor old woman who sold them.  As he looks at them, he imagines how

In some black-throated alley’s stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.

It is the bed she bought for the night with the money he gave for the geraniums.

He thinks that beautiful and brilliant as the flowers are in the glare of the gaslight of his room, they will be dead the next day.  And again he sees in his mind the old woman, with her worn out, alcohol-damaged body, and thinks

“...to-morrow
May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow
Of that old body with the nodding head.

He imagines her,

“The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,
She’ll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep;
Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.”

Having muttered her last colorful swear-words, having drunk her last pint of beer, he sees her sinking into the sleep of death, like Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt died when she held a poisonous asp to her breast.  It is an interesting and incongruous simile.  And with that passing, the old woman will no longer have need to sell flowers to buy a temporary bed.

It would have been easy for this poem to cross the thin line into maudlin and saccharine sentiment, but it is saved by the objective manner of presentation.

 

David

 

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THE SUMMER BEAMING FORTH: JOHN CLARE’S “SONNET”

This morning I was reading through old summer poems in English — a rather disappointing experience, because most are so heavy-laden with personification that they fail to adequately express the season.  It is refreshing to turn from them to the clarity and directness of hokku that present the experience of summer to us directly.

Nonetheless, here and there one finds works of Western poetry that “stick to the subject,” without a burdensome overlay of of personification and metaphor — among them, John Clare’s pleasant “Sonnet.”  Its only ornamentation lies in the subjective use of “I love,” and “I like,” and in the use of simile:

I love to see the summer beaming forth
And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north
I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain
And water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood
Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes
I like the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore
I love the hay grass when the flower head swings
To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day
And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

It expresses Clare’s joy in seeing the shining light of summer.  The scene he depicts seems to be set near the beginning of summer, which you will recall begins in May in the old calendar

He speaks of white clouds floating in the blue sky as “white wool sack clouds sailing to the north” — reminiscent of the later words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”:

what lovely behaviour /Of silk-sack clouds!

Only Clare — being more rustic — likens to wool rather than silk.

He then turns his eyes from sky to earth:

I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

He joys in the warm-weather return of wild flowers, and looks to where golden flowers fill the ditch that drains water from the meadow.  They are “mare blobs” in common speech — Caltha palustris — the marsh marigold.

Clare tells us that

water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

By “floods” he means here simply “waters” (rivers, ponds, lakes); and on them the water lilies grow white.  Here is Nymphaea alba, the white water lily native to Britain:

There, where the water lilies bloom, the clumps of tall reeds rustle “like a wind shook wood” — that is, like trees shaken by the wind.

There too,

from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

The moor hen — Gallinula chloropus — pushes out of her hiding place among the reeds.

The nest the moor hen seeks is a “flag nest” that is, a nest made of the leaves of the common water flag, Iris pseudacorus:

The yellow water flag is also known as the “gladden,” which accounts for the “Gladden Fields”  the  marshlands were Isildur was slain in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and where the “One Ring” was lost in the river.

Clare likes to see

the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore.

And he loves

the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day

“Hay grass” is the grass left to grow tall and luxuriant so that it may be cut with the scythe and stored in the barns as hay for beasts.  Clare likes to see the blossoms of wild flowers as they move to and fro in the tall grasses in the summer wind, and the insects flitting about in the sunshine.

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

His gaze is drawn to the water beetles scuttling about in the bright water.

John Clare (1793-1864) was an English poet born of poor and illiterate country workers, and though he managed to get some of his work published and received a small annuity, it was never enough to support his family, so he also had to work as a farm laborer.  The many difficulties of life eventually became too much for him, and he began to have mental problems and delusions that caused him to be placed in an asylum.

John Clare, by William Hilton: 1820, National Portrait Gallery

We do not know why this poem by Clare is not punctuated.  It is known only from a copy transcribed by W. F. Knight, the steward at the asylum where John Clare spent over two decades of the latter part of his life.

 

David

 

WHY DID I WAKE? WHEN SHALL I SLEEP AGAIN?

In the past few days,  have noticed a great many people coming to this site for my discussion of the “Days of Wine and Roses” poem by Ernest Dowson.  In it, he discusses the brevity of life, which appears as though out of a dream, and is soon gone again.

Musing on that poem and its theme, these lines popped into my head:

Oh, why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?

They are from poem #XLVIII  (48)– “Be Still My Soul, Be Still” — In Alfred Edward Housman’s great anthology A Shropshire Lad.  Let’s examine it stanza by stanza:

Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think rather,– call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

The poet is telling his soul — his mind in modern terms — his “self” — to calm down.  “The arms you bear are brittle” — meaning his “weapons” — his resources to struggle against the problems of life — are fragile, weak and easily broken, while earth and sky — the universe in which we live — was “fixt [fixed, set firmly in place] of old”  — made to be what it is long ago — and was made strong, and will not become other than it is.  His feeble resources will not change it.  So instead of fretting about it all, he tells himself that he should instead be calm and think of “the days when we had rest,” that is, the time before he was born, when he was still free of all earth’s troubles.  And those days of his non-existence were long, far longer than the brief period of grief allotted to him in his life here on earth.

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

Before he was born, men loved unkindness as they do now, but then he was “lightless in the quarry,”  he was still not removed from the darkness of non-existence.  “Lightless” means without consciousness.  “The quarry” here means that he was not yet “cut out of the rock” to become an individual, conscious entity.   So before birth he “slept and saw not.”  Living people wept over their sorrows, but he did not then mourn.  People sweated and bled, but he was never sorry, because he was not yet conscious, not yet in the world  “Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.”  “Ere” is an old word meaning “before.”

Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.

Now the poet muses over the matter of life and death.  He thinks about it all, but can find no reason for it for why he was born.  But the fact is that for the present, he walks the earth, breathes, feels the sun on his skin.  He exists.  So he again tells his soul to be still, because this existence is only “for a season,” for a short time.  He tells it to be patient in spite of the injustices of life and the cruelty of man:  “Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.”  “An hour” here means the relatively brief time left in his life.  He tells himself, that we must just endure life as it is, with all its flaws, including the cruelty of man to man, and hold on, because it will soon be over.  Life will come to its natural end.

Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation–
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?

Yes, he says, look at the human condition.  Heaven and earth “ail from the prime foundation,” that is, there is an inherent flaw, a suffering built into the universe from its very origin.  All the thoughts that “rive the heart,” (“rive” means “split”) that tear us apart emotionally — are all here in our world — in life — but they are all vain — empty — they end ultimately in nothing.  These emotions we suffer — horror and scorn, hate and indignation — they only move  the poet to ask the fundamental questions:  “Oh why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?  That is, why was I born, made conscious — and when shall I return to the sleep of death and unconsciousness?

You may recall  the Housman poem discussed earlier, On Wenlock Edge.  In it, he discusses the same topic, though in a wider view.  He tells us that

The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The simple fact of being born makes one subject to the pain of emotions, to suffering.  And in that earlier poem, as in this one, Housman says,

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

The gale of human life and emotions, however strong and turbulent, will soon be gone.  One returns to the nothingness out of which one came,  back to the “quarry” of unconsciousness, and

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

Then all the wind of emotion that troubles us is ended.  This was Hopkins’ view.  It was also the view of Ernest Dowson:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

Buddhism would agree that suffering is inherent in the structure of the universe, of existence.  Humans are plagued by endless desire and aversion.  But, it would add, dying does not end them, because this life is only one small link in a long chain of existence.  We have all heard stories of children who claim to recall previous lives.  So Buddhism offers a different solution — coming to know the true nature of that which we call the “self,” that which suffers, which ultimately it is said, is found to have no real existence, and when that happens, suffering ends.

In Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, we find stanzas that express much the same sense of the brevity and vanity of life that we find in Housman, for example:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.

And as for the meaning of life, the reason for birth, and what comes before and after it, the answer given in the Rubaiyat is this:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil through which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.

 

David

 

 

 

HOUSMAN’S FLOWERS: I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:

I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil).  The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell.  An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments.  But his efforts to sell his flowers failed.  People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear.  So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside.  Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,

Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds.  And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season.  But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears.   And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat,  when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.

Now we can understand this poem on two levels.  First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.

The second level is that of the writer himself.  He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him.  They just don’t “get” what he creates.  Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.

As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad.  And Housman was right.  Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.

Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible.  He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas.  It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;  And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:  Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:  But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

David

FROM THE GATES OF FAERIE: HENRY MARTYN HOYT

Those who enjoy the fantasy poetry of Walter de la Mare will find a similar atmosphere in this poem by Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920), whose work we have seen before in the posting “Where Throbbed the Thrush.”  Today’s poem continues a tradition of Fairy lore found in old tales and ballads, particularly the so-called “Child Ballads” collected by Francis James Child in his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882-1898.

THE SPELL

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

This is very much in the tradition of “medievalism” stimulated before Hoyt by the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, and we can link it to the earlier poem “Blow, Bugles, Blow” by Alfred Tennyson, with its second stanza reading:

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Hoyt’s poem, however, goes deeper into the Fairy lore of the British Isles.   In that belief, fairies were not little winged, flitting creatures, but rather a supernatural people of simultaneously this world and of another — a dimension humans entered at their peril.  And sometimes humans were taken — meaning they were abducted from this world by the fairy folk; they might be able to return in seven years, or fourteen, or twenty-one — or never.  That is why the country people spoke of the fairy folk with great respect and not a little fear, speaking of them carefully and only in a roundabout way.

In Wales they were the Tylwyth Teg — the “Fair Folk.”  In Ireland they were the Sidh — pronounced “Shee.”  Similarly, in Scotland they were the Daoine Sith, pronounced somewhat like “Doo-en-uh Shee” —  The “Fairy People,”  or more euphonically, the “Fairy Folk; also Daoine Math (pronounced “ma”), the “Good Folk.”  In older “Germanic” English, they are the Elves.  Both the word “fairy” and the name of their realm, Faerie, came into English from Old French.  So “Faerie” is Elfland, the otherworldly realm of the Daoine Sith.

The classic work on the subject in English is The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, which you will find free, online, in its entirety, here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34853/34853-h/34853-h.htm

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

It is the first light of morning (as we shall find).  A man is walking up a sandy road above the sea.  Suddenly he hears a rooster crow three times, then again three; and following that he hears three blasts on an elf/fairy horn, from the gateway to that otherworldly dimension.  Three times three makes nine, which is a number with sacred significance in old Celtic belief.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The man finds himself between two lines of finely-clothed riders on horses, nine on his left, and nine on his right.  They are clothed in beautiful cramoisie, meaning “crimson” — a very old-fashioned word borrowed from Old French, which in turn borrowed it from Arabic.  He calls them “phantom riders,” meaning they seem like spirits, and as the last traces of night fade away, the riders fade away as well.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

He manages to get to the door of his cottage, with the glow of dawn already in the East.  As he enters,  he sees, on the floor by the fireplace, a “cantrip” mark.  A cantrip is a spell or charm, so the mark is a spell placed on the dwelling.  Ingle is a Scots term meaning the fire in the fireplace, and by extension the fireplace itself and the hearth or space immediately in front of it. People in the early 1900s generally knew the word from the term “inglenook,” a recessed space in front of the fireplace, where one could sit cozily.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

Though it seems that only a short while has passed since he encountered the procession of riding Daoine Sith, actually it has been much, much longer.   He finds his thatched roof rotting, and weeds growing in it.  His bed is covered over with a white shroud, as though someone had died and the bed was no more used.  The well where he draws his water seems long unused, and is filled with stones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Alarmed by all he has seen, he runs down the street, shouting to draw attention, but no one can hear him.  He runs screaming across the market square of the town, but not a single “burgher,” — that is, townsman — turns to look at him.  Instead they pass by in silence.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

No one can see him or hear him.  He is neither entirely in this world, nor in the other, because he has been enchanted, “witched,” for seven years.  And all because he heard the blowing of the elfin bugles as the Daoine Sith came out from the hidden gates of  Elfland into our world, and he was caught in their passing.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

The poet repeats the first stanza to bring the poem to its end, something often done in old songs and ballads to give a sense of completion.

 

David

WHERE THROBBED THE THRUSH: THE FORGOTTEN HENRY MARTYN HOYT

HENRY MARTYN HOYT (Self portrait)
HENRY MARTYN HOYT
(Self portrait at age 23)

Most people — even most teachers of literature — have never heard of the artist and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920).  And yet one of his poems remains a favorite of mine, not only for its vivid imagery, but also for depicting so clearly the hopeless attitude of mind that — if one does not have a corrective change of perspective — can lead to disaster.

It deals with disillusionment about life — the realization that the world of childhood and youth — a world lived much in the imagination and shining expectations — is not the real world around us.  It comes to different people at different times, whether early or later in life.  It can be precipitated by any number of things.

We have seen this realization — shattering for some people — in previous discussions.  We saw it in Dylan Thomas’ lines:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

We saw it also in the plea of Matthew Arnold:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Life suddenly becomes very difficult and traumatic for those going through this realization; whenever it occurs, it is essentially a transition crisis from immature thinking to adult thought.  For some people, the body matures but the mind reminds in a childish state, blocking out the realities of life.  Such people are the Peter Pans of the world, who never want to grow up.  This clinging to mental immaturity — this reluctance to deal with the hard facts of life — is one reason why people attach themselves so firmly to dogmatic religious beliefs, and then when the evidence against those beliefs becomes too overwhelming, the individual’s world seems to collapse.

It is expressed when reality breaks into fantasy in the lines of T. S. Eliot:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

And some people, unfortunately, do wake only to drown.  The difficult time of transition is just too much for them.  If they were to wait, to learn from the hard knocks of life, they might survive and be better for the experience.  But for some, giving up the “Land of Dreams” is so traumatic a crisis that they end their lives prematurely, without ever having really achieved all that maturation means.  They cannot survive the loss of their pleasant illusions about life — the world of childhood and youth — at least that is how they feel while in the grip of the trauma of that dark period.

Henry Martyn Hoyt left us one of the most poetic expressions of this critical and dangerous time of transition.  It is titled

THE LAND OF DREAMS

Ah, give us back our dear dead Land of Dreams!
The far, faint, misty hills, the tangled maze
Of brake and thicket; down green woodland ways
The hush of summer, and on amber streams
Bright leaves afloat, amid the foam that creams
Round crannied boulder, where the shallows blaze.
Then life ran joyous through glad, golden days
And silver nights beneath the moon’s pale beams.

Now all is lost.  There glooms a dark morass
Where throbbed the thrush across the dappled lawn.
Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass,
Nor dance of light-limbed satyr, nymph and faun,
Adrift among the whispering meadow-grass,
On wind-swept uplands, yearning toward the dawn.

procession3One can discern in this poem an individual whose bright, youthful view of the world has been shattered, replaced by a day-to-day reality far from what had been hoped.  There is so little published material available on Hoyt’s life that one cannot easily trace the course of this disillusionment, but we know that it ended in his taking his own life at age 33.

This is the beginning of an article that appeared in The Sun and the New York Herald, 26 August, 1920:

H.M. Hoyt, Artist, Ends Life With Gas
No Cause Assigned for His Act.

Henry Martyn Hoyt, a portrait painter, committed suicide last night in his studio at 37 West Tenth street, by inhaling gas. William Rose Bennet, who roomed with Mr. Hoyt, returned home at 11:15 o’clock and found the artist’s body in the bathroom with a gas tube in his mouth and attached to that gas jet. Mr. Hoyt was only partly dressed.
Mr. Bennet notified the police and Patrolman Schroeder of the Mercer street station summoned a physician from St. Vincent’s Hospital, but Mr. Hoyt was dead when the physician arrived at the studio. Mr. Bennet told the police he knew of no reason why his friend should have committed suicide.

The “William Rose Bennet” mentioned in the article was actually William Rose Benét, the older brother of the writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (1929) Stephen Vincent Benét.  William eventually married (her third marriage) the poet and literary editor of Vanity Fair,  the beautiful Elinor Wylie, born Elinor Hoyt — a sister of the poet and artist Henry Martyn Hoyt.  She was Benét’s second wife of four.  William Rose Benét was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

“The Land of Dreams” was published in Dry Points: Studies in Black and White, by Henry Martyn Hoyt and William Rose Benét, in 1921.  Oddly enough, I first encountered the poem in my teens, finding it in the old volume The Home Book of Modern Verse (1925) in my school library.  For many years — due to an apparent typographical error in that edition — I knew the fourth line from the end as:

Oh, never more shall fiery pageants pass…

But when I read the original printing of Dry Points, I found it as

Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass…

I must admit that I still rather prefer the line as it is with the typographical error “fiery,” because it presents such a strong, vivid and effective image.

Henry’s friend William Rose Benét wrote of him in Dry Points:

All it meant to him — this life!  It meant so much.  It tortured him so deeply and yet he wrung from it so much and such exquisite pleasure.  And the times when he was most happy were of such utter simplicity — friends, his family, summer evenings, talk to the accompaniment of some handiwork, snatches of song, Italian restaurant suppers, lamplight, the reading of poetry, firelight, mildly hilarious pilgrimages through moonlit streets, — friends, friends, friends ….

Hoyt came from an old, very prominent, and wealthy family.  He had connections to then well-known people.  He was well-educated, talented and intelligent, and yet all of that was not enough in his time of crisis.

If you would like to read Dry Points, you will find it online here:
https://ia801404.us.archive.org/3/items/drypointsstudies00hoyt/drypointsstudies00hoyt.pdf

And for those who want to know a little more of the life of Henry Martyn Hoyt, the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale College tells us this:

Henry Martyn Hoyt was prepared at the Haverford Grammar School and the Friends’ School, Washington D. C., entering Yale when he was only sixteen…

He spent the summer after graduation abroad, and then attended the Harvard Architectural School for a year.  The next summer he did some painting and took a trip through the West, and the following year was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William M. Chase.  After another visit to Europe he entered the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, studied under Edmund C. Tarbell, and completed the course there.  He had since continued his painting independently and had developed a gift for etching.  He wrote a number of articles in connection with his work, some poems, and a one-act play… Dry Points, a volume of verse, by Mr. Hoyt, with a sketch of his life by William Rose Benét, ’07 S., was published in the fall of 1921.

In the summer of 1915 Mr. Hoyt attended the first Plattsburg Training Camp.  He enlisted on May 3, 1917, and during the next two months attended the Ground School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He went overseas in August, 1917, and was sent to the flying field at Etampes, later being transferred to Avord.  In Septemper and October, 1917, he was flying at Foggia, Italy, but was then taken ill with Saloniki fever and sent to a hospital in Paris.  In February, 1918, he was transferred to the Photographic Section of the Air Service, and the following May was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Air Service and assigned to the Photographic Section Headquarters at Tours.  He returned to the United States in April, 1919, and received his discharge at Washington on the twenty-fifth of that month.

He took his own life in his studio in New York on August 15, 1920.

A collection of Hoyt’s papers, sketchbooks, and correspondence are preserved in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

LEAVING OUR DAILY LIVES TO RETURN ANEW: ROBERT FROST’S BIRCHES

There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.

As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:

BIRCHES

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer of air and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.

If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.

This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:

Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.

And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)

Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:

I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer…

Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.

And now Frost discusses swinging technique:

He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.

Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.

The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.

And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.

In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.

David