May has been glorious. I love my garden at this time of the year – it’s so green, so overgrown, so soothing. I am reminded of Andrew Marvell’s wonderful poem: ‘The Garden’. Here is my favourite stanza which echos my own experience in nature when imagination and sensation collide and the result is a fresh and perfect thought. A blissful disconnect from the troubled world – a brief moment of simplicity. Green is good for you!
This is the first Sunday in December and a poem beckons. I decide to read one of my favourites: ‘Sunday Morning’ by the American poet, Wallace Stevens. This poem was published in 1915 when the poet was 36.
It is a long romantic poetic meditation and begins with a pleasant domestic scene where a woman lingers over breakfast with coffee and oranges. Some critics have compared it to paintings by Matisse. As the solitary figure contemplates beauty, death, and nature, she reminds us of the brooding loners in poetry from the Romantic period.
Stevens begins by asking a few basic questions: what happens to us when we die? Can we believe seriously in an afterlife? If we can’t, what comfort can we take in the only life we get? He circles around these philosophical problems but finds no resolution. Humans might one day achieve an ecstatic union with nature, but for now the randomness and beauty of the world elude us.
Here are some extracts from this beautiful but unsettling poem:-
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The final line is breathtaking. What an amazing poem!
A week ago was my Birthday and I spent it travelling to Elba, an island of the coast of Italy, to attend a wedding. The day was a transition not only from one country to another but also from a head full of tiredness and turmoil to another, calmer and more reflective frame of mind. Were I a poet, I might have tried to capture how I felt in verse. I remembered a sensational ‘birthday’ poem by Dylan Thomas : ‘Poem in October’, which he started in 1941 but finally finished in the autumn of 1944 to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. He was born on 27th October 1914.
I looked it up online and came across a YouTube clip of the poet reading his own poem – I am always surprised that there is no hint of a Welsh accent in his mellifluous voice. I listened all though and then read the poem. It’s so beautiful!
The first stanza begins:
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
On his birthday early in the morning, the poet walked from the fishing village of Laugharne along the silent sea shore. As he thinks of his birthday he recalls his childhood days and looks at the beauty around him. October stands between summer and winter; thirty is poised between childhood and maturity, past and future. Dylan Thomas may have thought that the age of thirty was the high noon or high tide of his life, and may have had a reasonable expectation of reaching sixty. He was not to know that he would live only for another 9 years. He died of pneumonia on 9th November 1953, aged 39.
As he recalls walking through the woods and up on Fern hill as a child, the past and present merge as he celebrates the glory of nature, a truth he learned first in his childhood days and now in his adult life. Here are the final six line of this marvellous poem:
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
His heart’s truth and his wonderful poems are still read and celebrated seventy-four years after he wrote this and, as one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century, Dylan Thomas will continue to inspire and delight us for years to come.