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

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GLAD YULE: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!

 

David

THE COLOR PURPLE: AN ENVIRONMENTAL WARNING

justinianravenna

Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.”  This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.

We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
   Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
   To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
   (Porphyrogene!)
In state his glory well-befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions

An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —

Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts.  Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times.  In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).

All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change.  It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.

Here is the link to the article:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/05/ancient-shellfish-red-mouthed-rock-shell-purple-dye-vanishes-eastern-med

 

David

 

 

BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

DESERT PLACES

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

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.

THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN: CAVAFY’S CANDLES

 

Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek.  It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA.  It means simply

CANDLES

lineofcandles

The days to come stand before us
Like a row of lighted candles —
Golden, warm, and lively.

The days gone by remain behind,
A sad line of extinguished candles,
The nearest still smoking;
Cold candles, melted and bent.

I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me,
And it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lit candles.

I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble:
How fast the dark line grows —
How fast the extinguished candles multiply.

The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead.  And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.

Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories.  But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more.  Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before.  All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane.  One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.

It makes one think of these old words  from Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.

“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”

I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry.  Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.