Why O hushed October morning mild … ?

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October

O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Robert Frost, A Boy’s Will, 1913

With apologies to Robert Frost, who probably has no equal as a 20th-century nature poet writing in English, we confess that we have always thought that his tribute to October misses Olympian perfection by a hair’s breadth. What we see as a flaw is a single word, its first word, one letter long. Strapping a frilly bonnet onto a Degas ballerina would have a similar effect. In our frankly inexpert view, the first line scans perfectly well without this archaism. Somehow, it fails to irritate in its repetition in line six, so why not just let it be there?

In some biographical tome or critical exegesis we have no time to look for, there must be an explanation for why Frost chose to begin with ‘O’. Could he have set himself a test, in which he had to try to knock John Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ off its pedestal? Was it both an hommage — Frost’s love of the early Romantic poets is well knownand friendly competition?

Certainly for ears in our time, Frost’s is the greater poem because it is so lean and quirky — deeply felt yet flintily austere; and as true in every detail it observes as the strong, beautiful muscles in Degas’s balletomane bronzes. Nature serves the Keats verses as a backdrop for a passionate reverie. For Frost, it is at front and centre.

But it would be unfair for history — when the 20th century also seems much further away than it does now — to judge Frost to be the better poet, not just because each man wrote for a different era of literary conventions and taste, roughly a hundred years apart. Keats, who would die at 25, only a year after ‘To Autumn’ was published, was 23 when its lines came to him.  It would take a heart of stone to escape an excruciating twinge of sadness, reading or recording these facts. What he managed to accomplish in his firefly’s span certainly warrants his pegging as a young poet of genius.

By contrast, Frost was slow to make his mark as a poet, having ‘allied himself with no literary school or movement.’ He was on the verge of his fifth decade when his October poem appeared in his first collection, A Boy’s Will — which he had to publish himself, after years of having his work rejected by magazines.

Almost no one learns poetry by heart after school, but there must be lots of other people, we suspect, who committed it to memory as adults and recite it this month, year after year, feeling a shiver up the spine at the end of it.

 

Summer turns binary

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Summers have turned binary in parts of the world living through the Time of the Wildfires — as if nature were playing a deadly metaphorical game inspired by transformations elsewhere (we are straining not to say digital revolution). The transition between phases is abrupt and disorienting.

Above: the apocalyptic part 2

Summer-to-autumn. At the top, an image from last summer — looking out of a kitchen window — that could easily be part of this one. Beneath it, the view outside in early August of this year.

Dread; destruction; unending vigilance; a mind swimming in images of ashen skies choked with deadly particulates — not always a safe distance away.

Below: the hopeful part 1

Spring-to-summer, pictures taken this year.

Growth; blooming under blue skies and grey; cool and fragrant delight; a sense of endless possibilities for harmony and good.

In a very different context from his poem ( ‘Easter, 1916’ ), these lines of W. B. Yeats come floating in:

… changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

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A dunce cap for T. S. Eliot, who could not tell a lilac from a lollipop — and an explainer in images

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Lilacs, 1: Budding: 4 April 2018 (Does that ground look not just cold and post-wintry but ‘dead’? Scroll down for the next acts in the drama.)

In the internet tradition of putting out bird seed for each other — information for nameless, faceless strangers — this entry is mostly for those visitors revealed by our site traffic analysis to be doing their English Literature homework.

We would march in the streets to protect poetic licence, but a poet who cannot get his elementary facts about nature right cannot be trusted as a wielder of metaphors or teller of even strictly psychological truths. He is liable to be written off as a pretentious twit for ending a poem with, for instance, …

… London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

… as T.S. Eliot did The Waste Land (1922), if he had started it with these offences against accurate observation and common-sense botany:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

What dead land would that be? Year after year, we watch as lilac bushes close by bud, sprout, come into leaf, then give us a live demonstration of why ‘You’re blooming!’ can be a true and sumptuous compliment paid to a young girl in love. Year after year, we imagine students in places where no lilacs grow frowning over the complexities of Eliot’s best-known poem — with no idea that he had everything back-to-front in its opening.

Internet searching suggests that those of us acutely irritated by this are (or were once) amateur or expert gardeners. Hardly anyone else has remarked — like the Oxford historian and gardening connoisseur Robin Lane Fox, in a marvellous essay about gardens in literature — that

No gardener … would agree that April is “the cruellest month” and in no gardens or landscapes known to me does April breed “lilacs out of the dead land,” least of all on the American East Coast within range of the young T. S. Eliot.

Even non-gardeners in the northern hemisphere know that the cruellest month is August. The hot weather is at its most evil, then, in warmer parts of the globe. In cooler maritime spots with changeable weather, it is when the last hope of any summer at all can be cruelly denied.

There is nothing dead about the ground when lilacs begin to push tiny brown buds from brown canes — as in the first of this sequence of pictures (above and below). It is wriggly with riotous new life. And no, Mr Eliot, you cannot believably proceed from a warm winter — or even one keeping only you warm — that fed ‘a little life with dried tubers’, to earth that somehow had all life mysteriously drained from it as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, more or less steadily.

Yes, we know about metaphors, you Eliot-defenders out there. We ourselves have been known to excoriate the obdurately literal-minded for refusing to dance with a poet’s imagination. We know from experience what T.S.E. was trying to say about how painful spring breaking out all over can be for someone depressed, after the protective cocooning of the dark, burrowing months. But if he had to reverse the truth of lilacs coming into their season, why didn’t he say he was writing science-fiction poetry?

We are in deepest sympathy with Vladimir Nabokov, when he asked a college student sent to him for tips on a career in writing if he knew the name of a tree outside a nearby window. When the acolyte confessed that he did not, Nabokov said simply, ‘Then you’ll never be a writer.’ **

** ‘Remembering Nabokov’ by Alfred Appel Jnr., in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quenell, 1979.

lilacs sprouted 28 april 2018 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com

Lilacs, 2: Sprouting, 28 April 2018

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Lilacs, 3: Cluster-setting, 6 May 2018

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Lilacs, 4: Blooming: 10 May 2018

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Lilacs, 5: In full flower, in spring rain: 15 May 2018