I Did Not Want To Love So

Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)

If the aim of the European wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been the aggrandizement of Russia, that aim might have been accomplished without all the preceding wars and without the invasion. If the aim was the aggrandizement of France, that might have been attained without the Revolution and without the Empire. If the aim was the dissemination of ideas, the printing press could have accomplished that much better than warfare. If the aim was the progress of civilization, it is easy to see that there are other ways of diffusing civilization more expedient than by the destruction of wealth and of human lives.

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold
 
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
 
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
 
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
 
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.
 
 

In Warsaw
(Warsaw, 1945)

by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)
 
 
What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins
Of St. John’s Cathedral this sunny
Day in spring?

 

What are you thinking here, where the wind
Blowing from the Vistula scatters
The red dust of the rubble?

You swore never to be
A ritual mourner.
You swore never to touch
The deep wounds of your nation
So you would not make them holy
With the accursed holiness that pursues
Descendants for many centuries.

But the lament of Antigone
Searching for her brother
Is indeed beyond the power
Of endurance. And the heart
Is a stone in which is enclosed,
Like an insect, the dark love
Of a most unhappy land.

I did not want to love so.
That was not my design.
I did not want to pity so.
That was not my design.
My pen is lighter
Than a hummingbird’s feather. This burden
Is too much for it to bear.
How can I live in this country
Where the foot knocks against
The unburied bones of kin?

I hear voices, see smiles. I cannot
Write anything; five hands
Seize my pen and order me to write
The story of their lives and deaths.
Was I born to become
a ritual mourner?
I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.

It’s madness to live without joy
And to repeat to the dead
Whose part was to be gladness
Of action in thought and in the
Only two salvaged words:
Truth and justice.

 
 
 

From Strength to Strength Advancing

Matthew Arnold 1822- 1888

“The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.”

Matthew Arnold

Immortality

by Matthew Arnold

Foil’d by our fellow-men, depress’d, outworn,
We leave the brutal world to take its way,
And, Patience! in another life, we say
The world shall be thrust down, and we up-borne.
 
And will not, then, the immortal armies scorn
The world’s poor, routed leavings? or will they,
Who fail’d under the heat of this life’s day,
Support the fervours of the heavenly morn?
 
No, no! the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;
And he who flagg’d not in the earthly strife,
 
From strength to strength advancing—only he,
His soul well-knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.
 
 

It can be a bit of a head spinner to jump from the language of the mid 19th Century to the 21st Century from one day to the next and then back again, but that’s one of things I find fascinating about the sonnet form.   It is a framework that has remained relatively unchanged and relevant for hundreds of years.  Although the language has changed, many of the themes Arnold is exploring are universal.   Matthew Arnold is not a poet I would ever come across  if not for this project and my radar always being up and listening for sonnets.   Arnold is not a poet who has remained popular.  His language sounds a bit stilted to my ears.  Yet if I push through the language and listen to his themes that he is wrestling, it sounds familiar.   In the middle of a pandemic, where all of our patience has been tested, his opening to Immortality is  dead on to thoughts I have been having.  Where should I place my energies?   Work doesn’t have the same feeling as it used to, working remotely has lessened the humanness and the fulfillment of working alongside other people so that I question a bit, what am I really doing and does it really matter as much as it once did?  I like his language if I let it transport me and embrace its foreign qualities.  It raises questions in my mind; what energies of my life will live past me? What will give strength to my children to others?  What battles are worth winning other than the one we all can win, enjoying our lives.


Shakespeare

 
by Matthew Arnold
 

Shakespeare

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,

Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil’d searching of mortality;

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess’d at. – Better so!

All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.

 

Before We Have Had Time To Breath

Love In The Time of Corona
Mass Wedding in South Korea During COVID – 19 Pandemic

“Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”

Matthew Arnold

Sonnets To A Republican Friend

by Matthew Arnold

God knows it, I am with you.  If to prize
Those virtues, priz’d and practis’d by too few,
But priz’d, but lov’d but eminent in you,
Man’s fundamental life: if to despise
The barren optimistic sophistries
of comfortable moles, whom what they do
Teach the limits of the just and true
And for so doing, have no need of eyes
If sadness of the long heart-wasting show
Wherein earth’s great ones are disquieted:
If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow
The armies of the homeless and unfed: –
If these are yours, if these are what you are
Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.


I can almost feel the anxiety creeping up through the internet the past couple of days from people reading this blog. I am torn between posting fluff and feel good poetry as a distraction to the disruption in our lives or share something with a bit more gristle attached to the bone.  If I am wrestling with it, the answer is probably do both.

If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, it will be what each of us focuses on in response to these challenges of change.   Here’s the good I see; friends and family rallying around their elders, dropping off food, connecting with them by phone and Facetime and Skype.  I hear friends reconnecting with their neighbors, sharing food and childcare and reassuring each other, supporting each other.  I hear both fear and boastfulness of good health, but across that wide span, I am watching people talking to each other. Maybe what will come out of social distancing is a sense of community.  A realization of what we value, a longing for our neighbors and neighborhoods when we re-emerge.  We can’t isolate ourselves completely from this global world we find ourselves. This is true for the person sitting on their couch binge watching Netflix and for nations. At some point we are going to have come out of social isolation and take the risks we have always taken.  The risk that there are communicable diseases in our world.

Wendell Berry is a gifted writer and poet, who speaks to our personal well being in ourselves as a direct reflection of the well being of our communities:

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

Wendell Berry

I listened to the church service I had planned to attend Sunday morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis by live stream.  It was a first.   It wasn’t nearly as spiritual or relevant.  It wasn’t even a good substitute for being there. I won’t pretend.  It was a thing unto itself that if I am going to get anything out of it, I will have to accept it for what it is, a video on a screen.   I still enjoyed viewing it. What did it inspire me to do?   Take a few of my business cards and slip them under my neighbors doors, who I have said hi to in the hall in the past but never really met as they all have moved in relatively recently and I am never home.  I wrote on the back – “Howdy Neighbor,  I am your neighbor in 208.  If you need anything, give me a call.”

As this thing progresses and turns into weeks, months and potentially years, the question we are going to ask ourselves at some point is when do we shift from fear to living bravely? We can’t shut out our parents, our neighbors forever, we can’t close our schools forever, we can’t all work from home and actually survive and move forward.  At some point we have to accept the risk of living.   Otherwise, like the protagonist in Wendell Berry’s poem below, we shall cease to experience, cease to be even in, our own lives.  For as Matthew Arnold says: “Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.”


The Vacation

by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.