"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, October 28, 2011

As Darkness Falls Into Light


All three paintings by Scottish Landscape Artist,
Joseph Farquharson, 1846 - 1935

This past Sunday, I attended a choral evensong, one of my favorite autumn traditions. The service closed with the lovely hymn "The Day Thou Gavest," and the words and music of this evensong standard have been playing in my head ever since. You might also be familiar with the tune from Rick Wakeman's dramatic instrumental anthem for Anne Boleyn that Gerry pointed me in the direction of: click here to enjoy in concert! You will also find that a shorter version appears on Wakeman's CD The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

The music, "St. Clement," was composed either by the Rev. Clement Cotteville Schofield or by Sir Arthur Sullivan; and the lyrics were written by British hymnologist John Ellerton in 1870:

The Day Thou Gavest
(click to hear choral rendition)

The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended;
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.

We thank Thee that Thy church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.

As o'er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren 'neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

So be it, Lord! Thy throne shall never,
Like earth's proud empires, pass away;
Thy kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

by John Ellerton

This beautiful hymn ranks as one of the top choices for funeral music, and no wonder -- the first stanza is a perfect metaphor for the close of life, the end of day, and the sad reality that this conclusion rarely comes at our own behest, but at that of another, greater power. There's also a little bit of Ozymandias lurking in the last stanza -- sand more vast than any proud empire could ever hope to be.

Hong Kong Sunset

Beyond the first stanza, why do I like this hymn so much? Queen Victoria favored it as a fitting metaphor for her Empire "on which the sun never set." It was sung at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and again in 1997 when Britain handed control of Hong Kong to China. However, I have never counted myself an imperialist, nor do I claim to be a great proponent of the the church triumphant or the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

What I hear in these lines -- and in the word church -- is a reference to the power of the universe, a much larger force than mere humanity, untainted by motive, striving not in its own best interest but just being, in a way that's difficult for an earthling to grasp. It feels to me like what The Prophet calls "Life's longing for itself."

Perhaps the Universe too has a longing for itself. The world longs to turn; the sun longs to set. This is precisely what Anne Sexton suggests in her poem "Lament." She offers this description of how the universe responds to a day of tragedy:

"The supper dishes are over and the sun
unaccustomed to anything else
goes all the way down."

The humans weep at the loss of a friend; the sun does not know any different.

The unsleeping church in Ellerton's hymn reminds me of the parental voice in the old Welsh lullaby, "All Through the Night," a song assuring us that love alone is keeping watch:

Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping
Love alone its watch is keeping,
All through the night . . .

While the weary world is sleeping,
All through the night . . .

~ as sung by Connie Kaldor
on her CD Lullaby Berceuse

Another beautiful rendition of this lullaby can be heard in the Denholm Elliot film version of A Child's Christmas in Wales

The most beautiful close of day paintings that I know of are those by Joseph Farquharson who painted numerous vividly hued winter sunsets, all with such evocative names as "The Shortening Winter's Day is Near a Close" (at top), "Afterglow" and "Glowing Sunset" (see above), "Day's Dying Glow," "The Sun Had Closed the Winter's Day,"
and this one --
Glow'd With Tints of Evening

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, November 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Friday, October 14, 2011

Apples, Walnuts, Leaves



Fairies and Elves Pick Apples
by English Illustrator Arthur Rackham, 1867 - 1939

An autumnal sense of resignation permeates the following poem by Robert Frost. I like the way that he is "done with apple - picking now" not because the job is entirely finished -- since, in fact, it's not: "there's a barrel that I didn't fill" and "may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick" -- but because he has just had enough; he's "overtired." Even though there may be a few odds and ends not yet tied up, the time for this particular enterprise has come to an end: "Essence of winter sleep is on the night."

Day after day of harvesting has worn a pattern of exhaustion into every waking and sleeping hour: "Magnified apples appear and disappear . . . My instep arch . . . keeps the ache . . . keeps the pressure of a ladder-round." Sometimes a task can wear a body down. A month or so ago, he was eager for such an abundant crop and could not bear the thought of even an ounce of waste; but enough is enough!

You might remember that the narrator in "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," has "promises to keep, / And miles to go" before he sleeps. The narrator of "After Apple - Picking," however, has gone the distance and is craving, at last, some untroubled sleep. He refers in the last few lines to a hibernation, perhaps, or the long metaphorical sleep of death, "Or just some human sleep."

After Apple - Picking
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost , 1874 - 1963
Four-time Pulitzer Prize winning well - loved American poet

The narrator of another Frost poem brings a similar sense of mission to his chore. Gathering up "bags full of leaves," he makes "a great noise / Of rustling all day," but what does he have to show for it? Still, as with those apples considered imperfect for whatever reason, "a crop is a crop":

Gathering Leaves
Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

Robert Frost
(see also my earlier post )

Walnut trees at the end of our driveway, not our favorite,
yet I'm proud to say I've picked up thousands!
A crop's a crop, right?
(I'm also thinking green tomatoes here!)

Contemporary poet, Larry Levis, writes of yet another harvest, not apples, not leaves, but walnuts. As a crop, they may be less valuable than apples but more useful than dry leaves, if you have the patience to find a use for them. I wonder, in the poem, is it a black walnut tree, dropping an endless supply of the troublesome rough green nuts? Are the disenchanted lovers staining their fingers as they fill basket after basket?

Sadly, in this poem, the walnuts carry the connotation of fruitlessness. The weary act of gathering them represents the sad continuation of an exhausted romance, so dire that the couple is not even motivated to deal with the hopelessness of the situation. Such deliberation would require too much effort; instead, they proceed listlessly with no hope of change, only the dull promise of a future as bleak as the present:

We'll go on as always harvesting walnuts

on our hands and knees,
and die voicelessly
as a sedan full of cigar smoke
sinking under a bridge.
We'll turn slowly, flowers
in the mouths of drowned cattle
In a dawn of burned fields,
the sun disappoints you,
and the blight you begin to remember
is me.
Like an Alp overlooking a corpse
I explain nothing.

Larry Levis, 1946 - 1996
Award - winning American professor and poet

I'm done with apple - picking now.

We'll go on as always,
harvesting walnuts on our hands and knees.

For as long as I've known the work of Frost and Levis, these two phrases have rung together in my mind, connected by their tone of resignation. The apple - picker is resolved to call it quits, accepting the finality of a season that has run its course. But for the walnut - gatherers -- no resolution; just a repeating decimal of bleak indecision. Why are their hearts so heavy? Not entirely clear; not all is explained.

If you can, do try to harvest your crops, whatever they may be, with a happy heart.

The Large Walnut Tree at L'Hermitage, 1875
by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, 1830 - 1903

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, October 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading