I strove with none for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved and next to nature, art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
Thus, Walter Savage Landor on his seventy-fifth birthday : a beautiful quatrain calculated to improve his “image” in the eyes of posterity. If I am a member of his posterity, he succeeded until I learned a little about his life. Landor was a frequent polemicist; he was, in fact, quarrelsome. At seventy-five the fire of life sinks at least a little for everybody, but Landor was not “ready to depart.” He lived fourteen more years. His heroic acceptance of death at seventy-five was somewhat compromised. Should he have suppressed the quatrain, or perhaps rewritten it to conform to age eighty-nine? My vague hope that I might adapt Landor’s quatrain to my life at seventy-five was quickly shattered. Some of it, the philosophical part, I couldn’t believe in when I was thirty-two; or rather I believed that Landor’s “nature,” a benign and responsive mother, had undergone since 1850 a portentous change; had changed, or been changed by man, from the Latin natura (feminine noun), mother nature, into an aggressive and destructive creature so vaguely human as to cease being a Thou, and to become an impersonal It. Here is what I wrote in 1932 :
Not, Landor, that I doubt your word
That you had striven with none
At seventy-five, and had deferred
To nature and art alone;
It is rather that at thirty-two
From us I see them part
After they served, so sweetly, you;
Yet nature has no heart :
Brother and sister are estranged
By his ambitious lies—
For he his sister Helen much deranged,
Outraged her, and put coppers on her eyes.
Outraged her? In my boyhood it was a euphemism for raped. Coppers on her eyes? Why? When I was a boy I heard people say that the way to keep closed the eyes of the dead was to put pennies on them. They must have been English pennies ; ours are too small to have sufficient weight. Putting coppers on the eyes is a symbolic act, the final shutting off the king of the senses. Beauty thus becomes blind and incapable of projecting itself upon nature, or may one say of seeing herself in nature?
As one grows old the range of perception shrinks, so that one hears not a lark or a mockingbird but an undifferentiated pipe of half-awakened birds. Likewise one sees only a “glimmering square,” not trees or hills through a window. A casement opens outward into space, but here it opens on nothing but a glimmer. Is the person dying who sees this? Yes, and one must say, with this lyric as one’s authority, that we begin at birth to die. Whatever one’s age, one’s degree of consciousness shifts up and down. One saw trees yesterday morning, but this morning only a glimmer. If one here is dying, what is one doing in the last stanza?
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds, to dying
ears; when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square.
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
After one’s death does one remember in the next life the moment of love? Is one dead but still conscious of the deepest frustrations that man can suffer? That is, hopeless love. I am stretching the meaning. But isn’t it equally grim to face dead love in this life? “Oh, Death in Life!” We are still alive but at every moment something within us dies, until there is nothing left to die, and we are dead.
Dear as remembered kisses after death.
In bulled Europa’s morn
we love our land because
All night we raped her—torn,
Blue grass and glade; jackdaws,
Buzzards and crows the land
Love with purient claws;
So may I cunning my hand
To clip the increment
From the land or quicksand;
For unto us God sent
To gloze with iron bands
The dozing continent—
The fallow graves, ponds
Full of limp fish, tall
Terrains, fields and fronds
Through which we crawl, and call.
This passage of angry obscenity is from a poem of my own written many years ago in disgust with the barbarism of Whitmanites like Carl Sandburg. It harks back to the ignorant, Edenic enthusiasm of Michael Drayton in his “To the Virginian Voyage” and comes down to Sandburg’s “The People, Yes.” It struck me when I wrote the poem that the worlds of Whitman and Sandburg are inhabited, respectively, by two persons only: Whitman and Sandburg. So I don’t know what people Sandburg was saying yes to or about. The men crawling in a blighted land could be post-ecological men, and may they be us? I don’t like the gift of prophecy. But what can one do? When several poets have told so many egregious lies about one’s history, one does the best one can—and this may be a vision of gnostic light hovering at the threshold of consciousness—above or below it, waking or dreaming.
If nature has betrayed Landor’s version of nature, we have betrayed nature. Nature does nothing to her—, him—, itself that we don’t do. Nature is what we make her, him, it.
For now the moon with friendless light carouses
On hill and housetop, street and market-place;
Men will plunge, mile after mile of men,
To crush this lucent madness of the face;
Go home and put their heads upon the pillow,
Turn with whatever shift the darkness cleaves;
Tuck in their eyes, and cover
The flying dark with sleep like falling leaves.
When I wrote this poem more than forty years ago—I quote here the second of two stanzas—I didn’t like it as well as I now do. I was afraid of the last line. I feared that the “flying dark” might be more than a mere image for “falling asleep.” I think it is more than that: it is flying into another world. But where is that other world—and what is it? The where is a stupid question, not unlike asking where the center of the cosmos is. What the other world is the next quotation tells us.
To say that the other world is love gathering us in has been said in different ways before, but never more perfectly than by Edwin Muir. This stanza has haunted me for many years. I am not sure that I know why I find it powerful. Every line is a platitude. But the eight lines are so put together, and so arranged rhythmically, that the result is brilliant and profound. Love is not mere love—whatever mere love may be; it is love gathering from the flying dark.
The quarrel from the start,
Long past and never past,
The war of mind and heart,
The great war and the small
That tumbles the hovel down
And topples town on town
Come to one place at last :
Love gathers all.
Where do we go to be gathered? The question is inevitable, if stupid. The where is obviously where the soul sets sail, not the spatial destination. Here is a poet’s preparation for the voyage, described by George Seferis;
All I want is to speak simply; for this grace I pray
For we have loaded even the song with so many kinds
That gradually it sinks.
And our art we so decorated that beneath the gilt
Its face is eaten away.
And it is now time for us to say the few words we
have to say
Because tomorrow our soul sets sail.