As Swimmers Into Cleanliness Leaping

If you are depressed you are living in the past if you are anxious you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.” 

Lao Tzu

 On Peace

by John Keats

O PEACE! and dost thou with thy presence bless
The dwellings of this war-surrounded Isle;
Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
The sweet companions that await on thee;
Complete my joy let not my first wish fail,
Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s Liberty.
O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see

That thou must shelter in thy former state;
Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
Give thy kings law leave not uncurbed the great ;
So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!


Peace

by Rupert Brooke

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Peace On Earth, Good-will To Men

Harper’s Weekly Christmas 1863, Illustration by Thomas Nast

The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Nameless Grave

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807- 1882)
 

“A Soldier of the Union mustered out,”
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular American poet prior to and during the Civil War.  Longfellow was an avid abolitionist and wrote anti-slavery poems prior to the war and patriotic poems during and after.  One of his most famous poems that is still heard at the holidays is Christmas Bells.  The legend is that Wadsworth wrote it on Christmas day in 1863, but that it wasn’t published until after the war was over in a children’s magazine. 

Christmas Bells

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Duty, Something More Than Life

George Henry Booker (1823 – 1890)

Fold him in his country’s stars.
Roll the drum and fire the volley!
What to him are all our wars,
What but death bemocking folly?

George Henry Booker

[Sonnet]

By George Henry Boker
 
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
    What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
    A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
    Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
    Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
    The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
    The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
    You loathed yet plunged into war’s bloody whirl!—
    What urged you? “Duty! Something more than life.
That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife,
    And Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl
    Who sought her father coming from the strife.”
 

Another poet closely linked with the Union was George Henry Boker.   Boker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a wealthy family.  His father Charles Boker was the president of several banks, and by whose intelligence and financial wisdom was able to successfully steer them through the troubled economic cycle of the late 1830’s.  His son took advantage of his privileged economic station by pursuing interests other than business, becoming an accomplished poet, playwright and dancer.
 
The Civil War focused Boker’s writing on the Union Cause, and changed him forever politically, from a Democrat to a Republican.  Boker published widely during the war in periodicals and magazines, including a volume in 1864 titled fittingly, “Poems of the War.”  Boker’s writing fit the times he lived.  He did not push any new boundaries in terms of style and form, but hidden among his words are some interesting phrases and ideas, the guilt of the Northern upper class caught in the maelstrom of the times, he himself, his father’s Abraham.  
 
 
 

In the Wilderness

By George Henry Boker
 
Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
    With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
    Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
      What faith sustained his lone,
      Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.
 
But when the light came, and the morning dew
    Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
    Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
      He moved his aching head
      Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.
 
At once there circled in his waking heart
    A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
    Along his native fields, and some would roam
      Down his dear humming brooks,
      To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.
 
And then he thought of the beloved hands
    That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
    Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
      She at whose soft command
      He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.
 
So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
    Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
    And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
      To be thus gathered in
      By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.
 
The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
    Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
    His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
      Though he but seemed to think
      How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.
 

My Heart Is Gladder Than All Of These

Julia Kasdorf

Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

 

A Birthday

By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


My Mother would have turned 89 this week.   Despite having lived to an age beyond what her parents and sisters experienced, it feels like she died young at 83 for a person who was as vibrant as her right up until the end.  Her death combined with COVID has changed my fall and winter routines.  Normally October is the beginning of theater season, with both her or I having secured tickets to ballets, and plays and concerts to look forward to throughout the fall and winter season and to help carry us through the coldest months to spring.   It seems like a foreign concept right now, the idea of attending live events.   The Rolling Stones tour came to Minneapolis last night and by all accounts put on a good show.   Its funny to think that Mick Jagger is closer in age to my Mother than to me.  But my Mother was a rock star in her own right. 

I am not sure if I am getting better with dealing with loss with age but I seem more resigned to it these days.   A new puppy arrived at our farm over the weekend.  A 7 1/2  week old golden retriever puppy that if all goes as planned will become a breeding female for a service dog program in the future.   I haven’t had a puppy in my life for 20 years, so it is feeling like we have a new born infant in the house again.   It is also a reminder on how fast our lives move by.  This puppy will carry me into my 70’s.  For now it is a confident ball of fluff that has the entire household on its tip toes, her 12 year old golden retriever brother genuinely enjoying showing the puppy the ropes, but also a little jealous at all the attention going the puppies direction.  Tasha the cat is a bit grumpy but will come around.  I have never seen a puppy this confident, a puppy so quick to adapt to its new environment.  Her name is Vida – life!   And she is just what our household needed this fall.    


What I Learned From My Mother

By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

I Will Not Tell Thee Now

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542)

I am as I am and so will I be
But how that I am none knoweth truly,
Be it evil be it well, be I bond be I free
I am as I am and so will I be.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

My Galley, Charged With Forgetfulness

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

My galley, charged with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain.
Drowned is reason that should me consort,
And I remain despairing of the port


Thomas Wyatt life reads like the next installment of Bridgerton, except with mostly unhappy endings.  His life is so steeped in myth, rumors and innuendo in what has been passed down that generations of academics have yet to completely unravel fact from fiction.  What is chronicled makes for juicy reading.  Wyatt was a large athletic man, who was as comfortable in the jousting ring as in matters of court and the arts.  A successful diplomat and patron of Thomas Cromwell, Wyatt ran in and out of favor with King Henry the VIII, as he pried the Catholic Church’s stranglehold from all matters of court and bloody birthed the Church of England into  being.  Cromwell was not so fortunate and was executed for his largely honorable service to his country.  Despite rumors of romantic connections to Anne Boleyne, or because of it, Wyatt escaped multiple imprisonments and charges of treason with not only his life, but eventually his reputation and standing in court restored. But luck never seemed to run on Wyatt’s side for very long and in 1941 while on a diplomatic mission with Spain he was struck down by a fever. 

Wyatt is credited with introducing the sonnet structure to English verse on whose literary accomplishments Shakespeare would use as a foundation.   Wyatt’s poetry was widely circulated during his lifetime and included in anthologies following his death.   Writing in a style that was personal, at times bitter and venomous, he was also deeply sentimental and romantic.   Wyatt wrote of love from a complex perspective having seen and experienced its many facets.  Wyatt’s poetry can run on the dark side, as betrayal was a common muse, knowing it could still a man’s heart every bit as the executioner’s ax in King Henry’s VIII court.   While in prison in 1936, he wrote following Cromwell’s execution:

Sighs are my food, drink are my tears;
   Clinking of fetters such music would crave.
   Stink and close air away my life wears.
     Innocency is all the hope I have.

Wyatt’s contribution to the sonnet was unique in history.  Wyatt’s sonnets are Petrarchian in their construction but with his own new English twist, he laid the path for Shakespeare to follow. 

 


The Apparition

by John Donne

WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.

 

I Could Not Sleep

Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)

“Nations, like plants and human beings, grow. And if the development is thwarted they are dwarfed and overshadowed.”

Claude McKay

All Yesterday It Poured

by Claude McKay

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
Upon the grass like running children’s feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast.
But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
And I was blind with hunger for your love.


Used

by Rita Dove

The conspiracy’s to make us thin. Size threes
are all the rage, and skirts ballooning above twinkling knees
are every man-chld’s preadolescent dream.
Tabla rasa. No slate’s that clean–

we’ve earned the navels sunk in grief
when the last child emptied us of their brief
interior light. Our muscles say We have been used.

Have you ever tried silk sheets? I did,
persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy’s clerk to bargain for more zip.
We couldn’t hang on, slipped
to the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt–
It’s hard work staying cool.

It Speaks Of You

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)

La Vita Nuova

In that book which is
My memory . . .
On the first page
That is the chapter when
I first met you
Appear the words . . .
Here begins a new life.

Dante Alighieri

Autumn Song

by Dante Alighieri

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems–not to suffer pain?
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?


The Divine Comedy continues to entertain readers around the world seven hundred years after the poet’s death.  The book was being circulated in manuscripts in 1321, before Dante’s death, but was not published and widely available until nearly a 100 years later. His son Jacopo and other Italian scholars who had access to hand written copies wrote critiques praising the work as early as 1324.   Dante named the work his “Comedy”, but it was Boccacio in 1350 who conjoined the word “Divine” to the title, in admiration of Dante’s brilliance.  2021 marks the 700 year anniversary of the Dante’s death and his popularity and influence on the literary world still burns bright.   Dante uses precise rhyme and meter in his prose, so it’s no surprise he penned many sonnets in his lifetime.   His poetry and his master piece the Divine Comedy, largely focus on one theme; love.  


There Is A Gentle Thought

by Dante Alighieri

There is a gentle thought that often springs
to life in me, because it speaks of you.
Its reasoning about love’s so sweet and true,
the heart is conquered, and accepts these things.
‘Who is this’ the mind enquires of the heart,
‘who comes here to seduce our intellect?
Is his power so great we must reject
every other intellectual art?
The heart replies ‘O, meditative mind
this is love’s messenger and newly sent
to bring me all Love’s words and desires.
His life, and all the strength that he can find,
from her sweet eyes are mercifully lent,
who feels compassion for our inner fires.

Don’t Believe Me, Please

Simon Armitage

We still need a voice that thinks before it speaks.

Simon Armitage

 

I Am Very Bothered

by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,

then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.

 


Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss, Act One, Scene Four

ROMEO [To JULIET]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Borderless And Open The Days Go On

Ivor Gurney (1890 – 1937)

with his words
in my head
I slept for thirty
or forty forevers
while the grass shrieked
and the trees tremored…

Deborah Landau

September

By Deborah Landau 
 
Dazzling emptiness of the black green end of summer no one
running in the yard pulse pulse the absence.
 
Leave them not to the empty yards.
 
They resembled a family. Long quiet hours. Sometimes
one was angry sometimes someone called her “wife”
someone’s hair receding.
 
An uptick in the hormone canopy embodied a restlessness
and oh what to do with it.
 
(How she arrived in a hush in a looking away and not looking.)
 
It had been some time since richness intangible
and then they made a whole coat of it.
 
Meanwhile August moved toward its impervious finale.
A mood by the river. Gone. One lucid rush carrying them along.
 
Borderless and open the days go on—
 

A friend of Ivor Gurney’s described him as being “so sane in his insanity.”  Gurney spent the last 15 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals in England, believing himself to actually be Shakespeare for a portion of that time.   A self described composer more than poet or playwright, he wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime.  Only a small fraction of his music has been performed or recorded.
 
Born in the city of Gloucester in 1890, Gurney was fascinated by music. As a boy he studied under the organist, Dr Herbert Brewer at the Gloucester Cathedral.  Following his service in WWI, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Sir Charles Stanford.  But life’s challenges intervened and a nervous breakdown interrupted his studies.
 
However Gurney is an inspiration of resilience. Despite worsening mental and physical health in his early 30’s, the early years of his commitment were productive creatively.  Its unclear how much of his mental illness was attributable to PTSD from the war or the physical impact of being gassed in the trenches but his mental health deteriorated over time until he was unable to continue as an artist the final few years of his life.  His cause of death was tuberculosis, which was rampant in the locked wards of mental institutions of the time.
 
I find it interesting to pair modern poets with counterparts from a 100 years ago.  Some similar ideas run through these two poems around the impermanence of permanence and how the external world moves on without us, regardless of the machinations of our inner life. 
 
 

Sonnet – September 1922

by Ivor Gurney

Fierce indignation is best understood by those
Who have time or no fear, or a hope in its real good.
One loses it with a filed soul or in sentimental mood.
Anger is gone with sunset, or flows as flows
The water in easy mill-runs; the earth that ploughs
Forgets protestation in its turning, the rood
Prepares, considers, fulfils; and the poppy’s blood
Makes old the old changing of the headland’s brows.

But the toad under the harrow toadiness
Is known to forget, and even the butterfly
Has doubts of wisdom when that clanking thing goes by
And’s not distressed. A twisted thing keeps still –
That thing easier twisted than a grocer’s bill –
And no history of November keeps the guy.

Fruitful Crops In Every Field

Harvesting wheat by hand.

“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”

— Michael Joseph Oakeshott

Portrait of a Machine

by Louis Untermeyer

What nudity as beautiful as this
Obedient monster purring at its toil;
These naked iron muscles dripping oil
And the sure-fingered rods that never miss.
This long and shining flank of metal is
Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil;
While this vast engine that could rend the soil
Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss.
It does not vent its loathing, it does not turn
Upon its makers with destroying hate.
It bears a deeper malice; lives to earn
It’s masters bread and laughs to see this great
Lord of the earth, who rules but cannot learn,
Become the slave of what his slaves create.


One hundred years ago it took 40 hours of labor from planting to harvest with the best horse drawn equipment at the time to raise 100 bushels of corn.   Today it takes around 2 hours.  We have 20X increased productivity and with it 20X increased the cost of production and reduced 20X the workforce needed to produce it.  The reason we’ll never go back is no one would want to work that hard ever again for so little wages.  We have grown comfortable in the marvels that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels have created and there is no bridge back to a pastoral rural economy.  But as these poems both remind us, there is a cost to our efficiency that goes beyond finances.   There is a human cost in our souls being tethered to the very machines that have transformed lives. 

 


Agricultural Implements and Machinery

by James Mcyintre (1828- 1906)

Poor laborers, they did sad bewail,
When the machine displaced the flail ;
There’s little work, now, with the hoes,
Since cultivators weed the rows.

Labor it became more fickle
When the scythe took place of sickle ;
Labor still it did sink lower
By introduction of mower ;

And the work was done much cheaper
When they added on the reaper.
Another machine to it they join,
Mower, reaper, binder, they combine.

Machines now load and stow away
Both the barley and the hay,
And the farmers do get richer
With the loader and the pitcher.

There’s little work now for the hoes,
Since cultivators weed the rows ;
They sow and rake by the machine-
Hand labor’s ‘mong the things have been.

Armed with scythes, the old war chariot
Cut down men in the fierce war riot ;
Round farmer’s chariot falls the slain,
But ’tis the sheaves of golden grain.

This harvest, now, of eighty-four,
Will great wealth on farmers pour,
For there is abundant yield
Of fruitful crops in every field.