Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Stroll

A poem that catches our fancy is likely to stay with us our entire life.  If the poem moves us sufficiently, we may discover that we have committed it (or at least part of it) to memory without even knowing we have done so.  At different times in our life, a stray phrase from the poem may return to us out of the blue.  We may think that this is mere happenstance, a quirk of memory.  But I suspect that more is afoot.

This past week, the title of a poem resurfaced in my mind.  I have no idea why.  But I returned to the poem.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Dun Emer Press 1903).

I read this poem for the first time at the age of 19 or 20, when I was taking a course in college titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot."  I was quite smitten with Yeats at the time.  When I returned to the poem this week, I discovered that I remain quite smitten with Yeats -- the Yeats of the 1890s and early 1900s and of the Celtic Twilight.  I am aware of his faults as a person (vain, supercilious, et cetera), but I am willing to let all of that pass:  I cannot forget -- and I am ever grateful for -- the scores of beautiful lines he wrote when he was a young man.  Perhaps I have not changed a whit emotionally in the intervening years:  "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" moves me as much today as it did on the day I first read it.

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Winter Scene, Provençal" (1938)

The poems we love begin to accumulate over the years.  (Please bear with me:  I intend to contemplate the obvious in this post.)  Our personal anthology of poems in turn leads to one of the many wonders of poetry:  one remembered poem often carries us on to another, and, before we know it, we are out for a stroll.

Thus, reading "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," I was reminded that Yeats is in fact one of my beloved poets of the 1890s.  This brought Ernest Dowson to mind, who, along with Yeats, was a member of the Rhymers' Club in London in the Nineties.  "All that's beautiful drifts away/Like the waters" led me seamlessly to this:

          Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                 vetat incohare longam

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

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The source of the title is line 15 of Ode 4, Book I, of Horace's Odes.  The line may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  An alternative translation is:  "the brief sum of life does not allow us to start on long hopes."  Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes (translated by David West) (Oxford University Press 1997).

The poem has appeared here on more than one occasion, but I never tire of revisiting it.  Encountering it in conjunction with "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water" broadens and deepens both poems.  I realize that not everyone is fond of the poets of the Nineties.  But this is undeniable: they wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Paul Methuen (1886-1974), "Bathampton"

As you have no doubt noticed, my incipient stroll had by now developed a theme of sorts:  transience.  But my stroll was a leisurely amble, not a purposeful walk with a specific destination in mind.  Hence, I was content to spend a day with Yeats's old, old men, and to spend the following day in Dowson's misty dream.

Although a great deal of unread poetry lies before me, hurrying through it would be antithetical to the essential character of poetry:  a poem asks us to pause and pay attention to the World, and to our existence within the World.  Reading a poem should be an act of repose and reflection, not a task to be completed.  Knowing that my stroll would resume, I waited.  On the next day, this floated up:

                              Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Yes, "transience" had definitely become the theme of my stroll.  Strong was a mid-20th century English "man of letters," a writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and literary criticism.  However, "Garramor Bay" has that wistful, death-haunted 1890s feel to it, particularly the final two lines, which sound as though they could have been written by Dowson or Yeats.

Ian Grant, "Chesire Mill" (1939)

Long-time readers of this blog may by now be familiar with one of my oft-repeated mantras:  It is the poem that matters, not the poet.  Each poem is a singular and sovereign act of creation.  Of course, few would dispute that W. B. Yeats wrote more fine poems than either Ernest Dowson or L. A. G. Strong.  But is each of Yeats's fine poems "better" than "Garramor Bay" or "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam"?  I think not.

We ought to be catholic in our search for Beauty and Truth.  We never know when and where we may happen upon them.  When I purchased a volume of Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems, I had no idea what I would find within it, but I was in search of Beauty and Truth.  I had a hunch they were there.  And, sure enough, I found them a few years ago when I came upon this untitled four-line poem:

Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (Chatto & Windus 1960).

These lines unaccountably reappeared the day after I read "Garramor Bay" this past week.  I immediately felt that my stroll was complete.

Paul Methuen, "Magnolia Soulangiana at Corsham"

Saturday, August 6, 2016


It is entirely possible -- and perfectly acceptable -- to live one's life without holding opinions on the political issues of the day.  As the years pass, I have been steadily throwing these sorts of opinions overboard, and I feel none the worse for having jettisoned them.

Mind you, I do hold some opinions.  For instance, it is my opinion that we should be kind to one another.  (Long-time readers of this blog have heard me quote Philip Larkin numerous times on this point:  "We should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.")  I am also of the opinion that it is rude to carry on cell phone conversations in public, particularly while waiting in lines at post offices and banks.  I confess that I favor dogs over cats.  (Although I have known and loved many wonderful cats.)  Further, it is my opinion that those who commit murder in the name of religion (any religion) are evil.  So, there you have it: I am not opinionless.

Granted, most of my opinions are in the nature of truisms.  (With the exception of my preference for dogs over cats, for which I beg the forbearance of those who prefer cats.)  But, as I have noted in the past, I am perfectly content to live my life in accordance with truisms, which are, after all, true.

                 Mute Opinion

I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

I understand the allure of constructing a well-ordered set of opinions.  The world can be a chaotic, horrific, and dispiriting place.  It can be comforting to believe that one's opinions are correct, and that the implementation of those opinions will lead to a better world.

But this is where problems arise.  A great number of people believe that holding the "correct" opinions is de facto evidence of one's personal virtue and morality.  More alarmingly, there is a disturbing totalitarian undercurrent in modern opinion-holding:  We are right.  You are wrong. And you had better adopt the correct opinions.  Or else.  Anyone who believes that totalitarian tendencies are limited to one side or the other of the political spectrum is deluding themselves.

But I mustn't rant.  I wish all opinion holders well, as long as they don't expect me to believe what they believe.  In any case, the end result of political opinion-holding amounts to a hill of beans.

                The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

Yes, Humbug will for ever walk the lands in which you and I dwell, dear reader.  There will never be a dearth of snake oil salesmen, whether of the left, right, or center.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Melrose Abbey" (1953)

Opinions on political issues are beliefs, not statements of reality.  In the wake of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment," belief in utopian political schemes has in large part replaced religious belief.  Political believers can be every bit as fervent as religious believers.  This is not a criticism of fervency.  Everyone is entitled to hold their own opinions.  But it is important to recognize the critical role that utopian political beliefs play in the lives of a large number of people.

Most political true believers are not aware that their opinions are the tenets of a religion.  Political religions are as rife with controversy as the early Christian church:  doctrinal disputations, denunciations, apostasies, and schisms abound.  Words are paramount, and are worshipped.  The niceties of creedal language are parsed in a fashion that rivals the labors of the Council of Nicaea.


Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace.  Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures.  Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.

Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "St Monance"

Holding opinions is a tiring and tiresome business.  Think of the amount of mental, emotional, and psychic energy that people expend on defending their own opinions and attacking those of others.

As for me, I am one of Hardy's "large-eyed few, and dumb."  And happily so.  I am content to remain mute.  There is a great deal to do.

              Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Harvesting in Galloway"

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The World

The world is perfect just as it is.  I would not change a thing.  We dwell in Paradise.  I am reminded of this each day when I take my afternoon walk.

Of course, Paradise is in a constant state of change.  And, as for you and me, our time in Paradise is short.  This is something that takes getting used to.  Encountering a lovely distant prospect (the waters of Puget Sound stretching away towards the Olympic Mountains) or a local miracle (the swallows diving and curving above the wild grasses in a meadow), my desire is to freeze things in place, to somehow make the moment eternal. "He wanted to feel the same way over and over.//He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,/To keep on flowing." (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Not in this world.  Otherwise, where would beauty have its source?

Hence, transience is a given.  But I cannot escape the feeling that there is something else afoot.  The world seems to be saying something.  It seems to have a life of its own.  This is where one enters the realm of ineffability. Here is one way of putting it:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  Or, consider this:

"To every Form of being is assigned,"
Thus calmly spake the venerable Sage,
"An active Principle: -- howe'er removed
From sense and observation, it subsists
In all things, in all natures; in the stars
Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds,
In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
The moving waters, and the invisible air.
Whate'er exists hath properties that spread
Beyond itself, communicating good,
A simple blessing, or with evil mixed;
Spirit that knows no insulated spot,
No chasm, no solitude; from link to link
It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."

William Wordsworth, "The Excursion," Book IX ("Discourse of the Wanderer and an Evening Visit to the Lake"), lines 1- 15, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), page 286.

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream"

"Spirit that knows no insulated spot,/No chasm, no solitude; from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds."  This possibility seems perfectly reasonable and congenial to me.  Can it be proved?  Of course not. But here is the marvelous thing:  it can never be disproved either, no matter how many scientists and philosophers and theologians are brought to bear on the proposition.  It is a possibility that lies beyond their limited areas of competence.  They cannot touch it.

Rather, it is a matter of human truth and poetic truth.  It is also a matter of deciding whether one wishes to live in a disenchanted world or in an enchanted world.  I've never been fond of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" and the putative "triumph" of Reason, Science, and Progress.  We all know how well that has worked out.  I prefer the notion of "the Soul of all the worlds" circulating around me.

     The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.  So bluish clouds
Occurred above the empty house and the leaves
Of the rhododendrons rattled their gold,
As if someone lived there.  Such floods of white
Came bursting from the clouds.  So the wind
Threw its contorted strength around the sky.

Could you have said the bluejay suddenly
Would swoop to earth?  It is a wheel, the rays
Around the sun.  The wheel survives the myths.
The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.
To think of a dove with an eye of grenadine
And pines that are cornets, so it occurs,
And a little island full of geese and stars:
It may be that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate his life with life
That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

"As if someone lived there."  That is what I have in mind.  "Life/That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life/That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze." In other words, a world that is enchanted.

John Lawson, "Dean Quarry"

From July of 1797 until July of 1798, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Alfoxden House in Somerset.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived nearby.  During this time, Wordsworth was immersed in writing the long multipart poem which bore the overall title of "The Recluse."  The poem proceeded by fits and starts and in many permutations:  "The Excursion," "The Ruined Cottage," "The Pedlar," "Home at Grasmere," and "The Prelude" are all predecessors or portions of it.

A manuscript notebook (now known as "the Alfoxden notebook") survives from that period.  It contains fragments of blank verse that reflect Wordsworth's preoccupation with "the Soul of all the worlds."

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

The lines "bound/Together by a link, and with a soul/Which makes all one" echo "from link to link/It circulates, the Soul of all the worlds" in the passage above from "The Excursion."  Thoughts such as these are dismissed by ironic moderns as a quaint form of outmoded pantheism.  The modern mind is actually quite limited in the scope of what it deems to be acceptable thought.  It has no idea of what to make of lines such as these:

                               Why is it we feel
So little for each other, but for this,
That we with nature have no sympathy,
Or with such things as have no power to hold
Articulate language?
And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language.  In all forms of things
There is a mind.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 340.

Even though a thing or an object has "no power to hold/Articulate language," isn't it possible that it has the power to hold inarticulate language?  Thus:  "In all forms of things/There is a mind."  There's that archaic pantheism again.

Here is another lovely fragment:

                                              These populous slopes
With all their groves and with their murmurous woods,
Giving a curious feeling to the mind
Of peopled solitude.

William Wordsworth, Ibid, page 341.

"Peopled solitude" is a wonderful phrase.  As is "murmurous woods."  (An instance of inarticulate language on the part of the world, I would suggest.) Those who are not fond of Wordsworth have little time for this sort of thing.  I will not argue the point.  I will only say that Wordsworth was onto something that is neither outmoded nor quaint.  The possible world that he describes has not been replaced or superseded by the newer, ironic world.

John Lawson, "Landscape, Dunlop"

For all of its soi-disant "freedom," "openness," and "progressivism," the modern world is in fact alarmingly (and risibly) narrow-minded.  This is not a political comment.  (I have no interest in politics.)  Nor is it a theological comment.  Rather, it is a comment on the limited range of possibilities that most moderns are content to live with.

Poets such as William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens shake us by the shoulders and say:  Look, there is something you are missing.  There is more to the world, and to your life, than meets the eye.  They expand the range of possibilities.  They open vast territories that would otherwise be beyond our ken.

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).  The poem is the final poem in Stevens's final book.

John Lawson, "Killermont House"

Sunday, July 24, 2016


My daily walk takes me through several tree tunnels.  Here is my variation on Wordsworth:  "My heart leaps up when I behold". . . a tunnel of trees awaiting me.  I never tire of walking down the tunnels, and I hope I never will.  Wordsworth again:  "So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!" These Romantic effusions are nearly always correct, despite what ironic moderns may think of them.

The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me.  In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).

Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.  Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers:  rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.

       The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).

The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock."  "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection.  A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).

"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times.  It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens.  In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period.  But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means."  I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.

James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)

Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me.  He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold.  Yet he is one of my favorite poets.  Why?  Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me).  I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.

Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry:  "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success."  (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.)  Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote.  In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems.  But Jarrell's point is an excellent one:  at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human.  For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.

In the same essay, Jarrell writes:  "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."  (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor").  But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.

               The Countryman

Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,

Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.

He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,

The name.  He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --

Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950).  Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.

"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem.  It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years:  "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape."  But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas:  "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74.  These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).

Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human.  This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above.  Stevens seems to have been aware of this:  "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?"  (There's that word "countryman" again.)  These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.

But there is a softening and a warming at the end.  "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines:  "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way."  These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth:  "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way."  (Italics added.)  Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:

"The poet finds that as between these two sources:  the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata.  In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch.  In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."

Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).

Here is the first poem in "The Rock."  Stevens did not place it there by chance.

                         An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means."  I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line.  There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are."  Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"?  But it is the words of the poems that matter.  "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ."  In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Wallace Stevens,  Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing."  "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."

     From out of the darkness
Of the short night
     Comes the River Ōi.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.

Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"

Sunday, July 17, 2016


In a week such as this, when we are once again reminded of the presence of evil in the world, and are saddened at the loss of innocent lives, I suspect that many of us wonder:  how does one go about the business of living in times such as these?  We all know the answer to that question:  we must live in a manner that preserves and perpetuates everything that evil hopes to destroy.

Are poetry and art trivial and of no account in an age of barbarism?  Of course not.  They are never more important than in times such as these. The barbarians have no conception of what it means to be human.  Poetry and art embody all that is good and humane in civilization.  They stand as a direct reproach to, and a repudiation of, evil and barbarity.  Moreover, evil and barbarity cannot touch them.

                                     St. Ursanne

Leaving the viaduct on the left, and coming over the hill,
We came to a small town, four towers at the corners,
The streets narrow and not dark,
The children playing in green gardens by the waterside.

Was it at the Swan or the White Horse that we stopped?
We walked up to the church and the stone cloister,
Grass growing among the tangle of votive ribbons,
The wax flowers and the twisted wire.

We heard the town-crier ringing a bell under the town clock --
Something about a wandering cow and a job for a waggoner,
Then we looked at the watermill by the stone bridge,
And went back for a Rossi or a Cinzano.

That was at Eastertide, and the fields and meadows
Mellow with cowslips:  there were boys on bicycles
With bandoliers of jonquils, and there was an old lady
With a basket of primroses and violets.

It was a quiet town, and not yet broken,
The people kindly, and the priest "a good one as priests go,"
There was a football team, and a lad who enters from the country in the
Singing:  Ohé Oh, Ohé Oh!

Michael Roberts, Orion Marches (Faber and Faber 1939).

The poem was first published in April of 1938, on the eve of that generation's age of barbarism.  The horror and suffering that followed are incomprehensible, and cannot be minimized or forgotten.  But do they render the poem irrelevant?  Quite the opposite.  The human world of the poem remains unchanged.

John Maclauchlan Milne (1886-1957)
"Mountainous Landscape with Fir Trees and a Lake" (1931)

In this post I intend to give mountains their due after my recent paeans to seasides.  But "St. Ursanne" brings to mind a wonderful seaside poem by   R. S. Thomas that has appeared here in the past.  In both poems, a quotidian scene casually unfolds before us.  (I do not use "quotidian" in a pejorative sense.)  Nothing of importance takes place.  Or so it seems.  Yet both scenes contain all of the beauty and truth of life.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Loch Tulla" (1933)

A good poem is a complex and ever-evolving thing.  It has its origin in the minute particulars of the poet's personal experience of the world.  Those particulars are reconstituted and transformed through the poet's act of imagination.  A good poem is also an act of preservation:  it preserves the poet's imaginative response to a unique set of particulars.  This begins as a wholly personal act on the part of the poet:  Michael Roberts and R. S. Thomas felt compelled to preserve their experiences of a particular day in St. Ursanne and of a particular day in Abersoch.  But, by reading their poems, we in turn preserve and perpetuate those experiences.

Each of us comes to a poem with our own unique set of feelings, thoughts, and circumstances, all of which influence how we react to the poem.  This does not mean that we change the poem into what we want it to be.  (This is where most modern "literary criticism" goes wrong.)  Rather, the poem, which was a wholly personal act of imagination and preservation by the poet, now awakens a wholly personal response in each of us.

At this point, one of the wonders and beauties of poetry emerges:  each poem carries with it the possibility of commencing a never-ending and ever-multiplying chain of human responses.


High and solemn mountains guard Rioupéroux,
Small untidy village where the river drives a mill:
Frail as wood anemones, white and frail were you,
And drooping a little, like the slender daffodil.

Oh I will go to France again, and tramp the valley through,
And I will change these gentle clothes for clog and corduroy,
And work with the mill-hands of black Rioupéroux,
And walk with you, and talk with you, like any other boy.

James Elroy Flecker, The Bridge of Fire: Poems (Elkin Mathews 1907).

There you have it:  by reading "Rioupéroux" we have just preserved and prolonged a sequence of human interaction that began when the poem was published in 1907.  James Elroy Flecker died of tuberculosis in 1915 at the age of 30.  But we have just renewed his life as a poet.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Cioch na h-Oighe" (1942)

Bernard Spencer wrote the following lovely and moving poem after his wife Nora died of complications from tuberculosis in 1947.  Prior to her death, they had been planning a holiday in the Alps.

                          At Courmayeur

This climbers' valley with its wayside shrines
(the young crowned Mother and her dying flowers)
became our theme for weeks.  Do you remember
the letters that we wrote and how we planned
the journey there and chose our hotel; ours
was to be one "among the pines"?

Guesses went wide; but zigzag past that ridge
the road climbs from the Roman town; there stand
the glittering peaks, and one, the God, immensely
tossing the clouds around his shoulders; here
are what you asked for, summer pastures and
an air with glaciers in its edge.

Under all sounds is mountain water falling;
at night, the river seems to draw much closer;
darling, how did you think I could forget you,
you who for ever stayed behind?  Your absence
comes back as hard as rocks.  Just now it was
those hangdown flowers that meant recalling.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder & Stoughton 1963).

The lines "darling, how did you think I could forget you,/you who for ever stayed behind?" refer to the couple's frequent separations due to Spencer's foreign postings while he was employed by the British Council.  This included a long separation during the Second World War, when he was stranded in Greece and Egypt, while she remained in England.

Thus ends our brief Alpine tour (with a detour to Wales).  St. Ursanne, Abersoch, Rioupéroux, and Courmayeur as seen through the eyes of poets: all beyond the reach of evil and untouchable by barbarism.

John Maclauchlan Milne, "Lairig Ghru" (1931)

Saturday, July 9, 2016


The appearance of Robert Frost's "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" in my previous post got me to thinking about other poems with seaside settings. The comments that I made in my June 5 post about the calming effect of seascapes, and their ability to induce reverie, also come to mind.  Of course, any pleasing natural setting has the capacity to calm us and to lead us into reverie.  But I confess to being partial to the sort of reverie that seaside locations are wont to provoke.

In saying this, I do not intend to scant the particular evocative qualities of, say, mountains or forests or cornfields or streams.  For instance, I have said here before that I would be happy to spend eternity lying beneath the boughs of a tree on a sunny day as the fluttering leaves -- in kaleidoscopic shades of green, shot through with sunlight, set against a blue sky -- whisper and rustle overhead in a soft breeze.  "The wings/Of doves among dim branches far above."  "Noon a purple glow."

Still, the coming-to-the-end-of-things feeling that haunts seasides is unique in its reverie-inducing qualities.  The feeling is equivocal and complex.  You may feel that you have exhausted all possibilities by arriving at the margins of land.  On the other hand, you may feel, as you gaze outward, that the possibilities are endless.  It depends on the day.  It depends on how your life has turned out.

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Viking/The Gallery Press 1991).

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

My beloved poets of the 1890s seem to have existed in a state of perpetual reverie.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."  Hence, it is not surprising that, in their poems, we often encounter them sunk in thought in lonely autumn seaside villages or reclining on deep-green hillside swards above deep-blue harbors.  I find this very alluring.

Brittany was the favorite place of escape for Ernest Dowson.  Here is the final stanza of his "In a Breton Cemetery," which has appeared here in the past:

And now night falls,
     Me, tempest-tost, and driven from pillar to post,
     A poor worn ghost,
This quiet pasture calls;
     And dear dead people with pale hands
     Beckon me to their lands.

But Dieppe, not Brittany, was the quintessential seaside destination of the poets of the Nineties.  It offered them the best of both fin de siècle worlds:  a hint of urban decadence (bars and casinos) in a dreamlike natural landscape consisting of, by turns, fog, blinding sunlight, and mist. All unfolding on the edge of eternity.  With lurid sunsets.


The pale grey sea crawls stealthily
Up the pale lilac of the beach;
A bluer grey, the waters reach
To where the horizon ends the sea.

Flushed with a tinge of dusky rose,
The clouds, a twilit lavender,
Flood the low sky, and duskier
The mist comes flooding in, and flows

Into the twilight of the land,
And darkness, coming softly down,
Rustles across the fading sand
And folds its arms about the town.

Arthur Symons, Amoris Victima (Leonard Smithers 1897).  According to a note which accompanies the poem in his Collected Works, Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on August 22, 1895.

As I have observed in the past, no one does this sort of thing better than the Nineties poets.  Of course, they are regarded as quaint and old-fashioned caricatures by moderns, who can only evaluate the past in terms of their own debilitating and distancing irony.  They cannot conceive of the possibility that the poets of the Nineties wrote poetry as if their lives depended on it.

Richard Eurich, "In Falmouth Harbour" (1935)

I sometimes imagine myself in my final years.  I see myself living in a small seaside town.  Any town, any sea, any country will do.  Each day I walk slowly along a promenade beside the sea.  The tides go in and out.  Along the promenade, at intervals, are deciduous trees.  Any type will do.  Each year, until the end, I watch the leaves come and go and the tides go in and out.  All possibilities will have been exhausted.  Yet the possibilities will still be endless.

         September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Richard Eurich, "Whitby in Wartime"

My daily walk takes me past a large meadow that slopes gently down for a quarter-mile or so to a bluff beside Puget Sound.  The meadow is covered with tall grasses, with a wild rose bush here and there.  At this time of year a single patch of purple-pink and purple-white sweet peas -- a rough circle about 30 or 40 feet in diameter -- is abloom in the center of the meadow, about halfway to the edge of the bluff.  Beyond the meadow the water stretches away to green-blue islands and to the Olympic Mountains.

The world is indeed Paradise.  Which we tend to forget.  I know I do.


O is it death or life
That sounds like something strangely known
In this subsiding out of strife,
This slow sea-monotone?

A sound, scarce heard through sleep,
Murmurous as the August bees
That fill the forest hollows deep
About the roots of trees.

O is it life or death,
O is it hope or memory,
That quiets all things with this breath
Of the eternal sea?

Arthur Symons, Silhouettes (Elkin Matthews and John Lane 1892). Symons wrote the poem in Dieppe on June 20, 1890.  It is part of a six-poem sequence titled "At Dieppe."

Richard Eurich, "Fawley Beach" (1939)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The recent Brexit referendum and the ongoing presidential election campaign in the United States have got me to thinking about the politicization of daily life, a subject that I have considered here in the past. But let me be clear at the outset:  this is a non-political blog, and you will not hear any opinions from me on either Brexit or the presidential election. I am not a citizen of the United Kingdom, so Brexit is none of my business. As for the presidential election:  I intend to sit it out.

What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political "activists," and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be:  political animals.

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936.)

Be careful before you make any quick judgments on what the poem "means."  Depending upon how you read the poem, you may be a misanthrope or you may be a lover of humanity.  Or both.  Or neither.  In his fine study of Frost's poetry, Tim Kendall says this of the poem:  "This is what I can see happening, the poet tells his reader.  Make of it what you will."  Tim Kendall, The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), page 356.  But this much is certain:  you are standing there on the sand, dear reader, as are we all.

Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1948)

Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul.


Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock's nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas -- not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

Gilbert Spencer
"The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (1952)

Each of us has a far better opinion of ourself than we ought to.  That is a given.  A part of human nature.  But, when you add politics to the mix, the opportunities for superciliousness expand exponentially.  Vast territories of grandiosity, oversimplification, and unexamined assumptions lie open for exploration.  And you can be sure that the politicized -- left, right, and center -- will undertake the expedition.


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor  for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

W. B. Yeats could be as supercilious as they come.  But every once in a while he experienced a moment of clarity.


Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind
A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on the lonely height where all are in God's eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

"A single soul," yes.  Yet something else comes to mind as well.

                           Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

George Charlton, "Welsh Chapel" (1950)

I am well aware that there may be those among you who find this disquisition (diatribe?) to be supercilious in its own right.  Apathy and quietism as the world goes up in flames.  I see your point.  Ah, well, we are all in "the vale of Soul-making."  We each choose our own path.


You say a thousand things,
And with strange passion hotly I agree,
And praise your zest,
And then
A blackbird sings
On April lilac, or fieldfaring men,
Ghostlike, with loaded wain,
Come down the twilit lane
To rest,
And what is all your argument to me?

Oh yes -- I know, I know,
It must be so --
You must devise
Your myriad policies,
For we are little wise,
And must be led and marshalled, lest we keep
Too fast a sleep
Far from the central world's realities.
Yes, we must heed --
For surely you reveal
Life's very heart; surely with flaming zeal
You search our folly and our secret need;
And surely it is wrong
To count my blackbird's song,
My cones of lilac, and my wagon team,
More than a world of dream.

But still
A voice calls from the hill --
I must away --
I cannot hear your argument to-day.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick and Jackson 1917).

But life is more than a matter of blackbirds singing and lilacs blooming, isn't it?  Thus, please forgive me as I return once again to some of the best advice that I have come across during my time on earth:

               . . . we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin, "The Mower," Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Thursday, June 23, 2016


As I have noted here in the past, a few times each year I feel the urge to visit the misty, twilit (at  all hours of the day) world of the poets of the 1890s. There is no telling when this urge will arrive.  It is purely a matter of emotion.  Thus, as summer begins, I find myself immersed in the dreamy, death-haunted, yellow-turning-to-grey world of the fin de siècle.  On this occasion, however, my return is not prompted by free-floating emotion, but by coming across this poem:

               To a Minor Poet of 1899

To leave a verse concerning the sad hour
That awaits us at the limit of the day,
To bind your name to its sorrowful date
Of gold and of vague shade.  That's what you wanted.
With what passion as the day drew to its close
You labored on and on at the strange verse
That, until the universe disperses,
Would confirm the hour of the strange blue!
I do not know if ever you succeeded
Nor, vague elder brother, if you existed,
But I am alone and want oblivion
To restore your fleeting shade to the days
In the supreme already worn-out effort
Of words wherein the evening may yet be.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Charles Tomlinson), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

I suppose that, from the standpoint of "literary criticism" (whatever that is), all of the poets of the Nineties (with the exception of W. B. Yeats) are "minor poets."  But the whole concept of "major" and "minor" poets is useless.  As you have heard me say before, dear readers, it is the poem that is important, not the poet.

Perhaps this is what Borges is trying to tell us, at least in part.  What matters is "the supreme already worn-out effort/Of words wherein the evening may yet be."  Are all of the poems written by "major poets" good? Of course not.  Are all of the poems written by "minor poets" bad?  Of course not.  And so-called "minor poets" have written poems that are as good as the best poems ever written by "major poets."  Using these sorts of labels encourages laziness and discourages expeditions of discovery.

George Reid, "Evening" (1873)

I suspect that some assiduous scholar has tracked down which "minor poet of 1899" Borges had in mind.  The poet may be Argentinian, not English.  I have not looked into that.  Moreover, knowing Borges, it is entirely possible that the "minor poet" is an imaginary poet.

In the absence of a name, I would like to share two poems published in 1899 by my favorite poets of the Nineties:  Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  I believe that the poems capture the twilit atmosphere evoked by Borges in his poem:  "the sad hour/That awaits us at the limit of the day," the "sorrowful date/Of gold and of vague shade" and "the hour of the strange blue."  Symons and Dowson knew them well.

          On Inishmaan
           (Isles of Aran)

In the twilight of the year,
Here, about these twilight ways,
When the grey moth night drew near,
Fluttering on a faint flying,
I would linger out the day's
Delicate and moth-grey dying.

Grey, and faint with sleep, the sea
Should enfold me, and release
Some old peace to dwell with me.
I would quiet the long crying
Of my heart with mournful peace,
The grey sea's, in its low sighing.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (Heinemann 1899).

"The grey moth night" has stayed with me since I first read the poem years ago.  When I come across four words such as these, I am reminded why I love poetry.  Beauty may be just around the corner.  And it will accompany you for the rest of your life.

Charles Napier Hemy, "Evening Grey" (1868)

In the following poem, Derek Mahon evokes the preoccupation (or is it infatuation?) with death that is so prevalent in the poetry of the 1890s. Mahon's tone may seem a bit dismissive, but, overall, I think he feels an affinity with the poets.  This is more apparent in his later poem "Remembering the '90s," which appears in The Yellow Book (The Gallery Press 1997), a collection that borrows its name from the iconic quarterly magazine of the fin de siècle.

             The Poets of the Nineties

Slowly, with the important carelessness
Of your kind, each spirit-sculptured face
Appears before me, eyes
Bleak from discoveries.

I had almost forgotten you had been,
So jealous was I of my skin
And the world with me.  How
Goes it with you now?

Did death and its transitions disappoint you,
And the worms you so looked forward to?
Perhaps you found that you had to queue
For a ticket into hell,
Despite your sprays of laurel.

You were all children in your helpless wisdom,
Retiring loud-mouths who would not be dumb --
Frustrated rural clergymen
Nobody would ordain.

Then ask no favour of reincarnation,
No yearning after the booze and whores --
For you, if anyone,
Have played your part
In holding nature up to art . . .

Be content to sprawl in your upland meadows,
Hair and boy-mouths stuck with flowers --
And rest assured, the day
Will be all sunlight, and the night
A dutiful spectrum of stars.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

When the poem was first published in Mahon's Night-Crossing (Oxford University Press 1968), it was titled "Dowson and Company."  The lines "Be content to sprawl in your upland meadows,/Hair and boy-mouths stuck with flowers" bring to mind Dowson's "Breton Afternoon," which begins with this stanza:

Here, where the breath of the scented-gorse floats through the sun-stained
On a steep hill-side, on a grassy ledge, I have lain hours long and heard
Only the faint breeze pass in a whisper like a prayer,
And the river ripple by and the distant call of a bird.

The fascination with "death and its transitions" noted by Mahon is reminiscent of the third stanza of "Breton Afternoon":

Out of the tumult of angry tongues, in a land alone, apart,
In a perfumed dream-land set betwixt the bounds of life and death,
Here will I lie while the clouds fly by and delve an hole where my heart
May sleep deep down with the gorse above and red, red earth beneath.

(A side-note:  Mahon writes of his own visit to Breton in a lovely four-poem sequence titled "Breton Walks," which may be found in Poems 1962-1978.)

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

Ernest Dowson's final volume of verse was published in 1899.  He died the following year at the age of 32.  The volume closes with this poem:

                            A Last Word

Let us go hence:  the night is now at hand;
     The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
     And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
     Laughter or tears, for we have only known
     Surpassing vanity:  vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.

Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
     To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
     Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands!  O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations: In Verse and Prose (Leonard Smithers 1899).

Dowson wrote what is perhaps the quintessential poem of the Nineties: "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam," which has appeared here on more than one occasion.  The poem ends with these lines:

     Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
     Within a dream.

It has always been thus.  The poets of the Nineties have said these things as well as they have ever been said.  There is nothing new under the sun, but we need poets to tell us these things in their own fashion, whatever their time and wherever their place.  To return to Borges:  "the supreme already worn-out effort/Of words wherein the evening may yet be."  "Worn-out?"  I wonder.  Restated, perhaps.  And timeless.

That man's life is but a dream --
is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)