Sunday, July 31, 2005

Jenny White and Johnny Black

by Eleanor Farjeon

Jenny White and Johnny Black
Went out for a walk.
Jenny found wild strawberries,
And John a lump of chalk.

Jenny White and Johnny Black
Clambered up a hill.
Jenny heard a willow-wren
And John a workman’s drill.

Jenny White and Johnny Black
Wandered by the dyke.
Jenny smelt the meadow-sweet,
And John a motor-bike.

Jenny White and Johnny Black
Turned into a lane.
Jenny saw the moon by day
And Johnny saw a train.

Jenny White and Johnny Black
Walked into a storm.
Each felt for the other’s hand
And found it nice and warm.

* * *

I found this story in a children's book that I was reading aloud at work.

This is a prime example of how easily poetry can reveal universal truths by using the concrete and specific. There is no over-generalization, as is so easy to do in prose, nor is there vague abstraction.

The basic idea is the difference between men and women. Women are interested in the natural, men in the manmade. Women care about what is beautiful, men about what is useful.

Yet in the end, when trouble comes, men and women can turn to each other and find comfort in one another. Their differences do not prevent this; rather, they are a large part of what allows them to complement each other in the wonderful way they do.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

(Maidens’ song from St. Winefred’s Well)


HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.


There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

* * *

This is one of my favorite Hopkins poems. It deals with the problem of the vanishing of beauty: the more we try to preserve our appearance, the more it fades away. Curling and straightening of hair, bleaching of freckles, facelifts, in the end all tend to drain the life out of us, and snatch away that elusive quality that shines through our physical appearance to produce true beauty.

This leads to despair for those for whom beauty is an end in itself. And yet there's that old paradox: whoever seeks his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.

Therefore the secret to everlasting beauty is to keep it from being an ultimate end. True loveliness will come to those who do not seek it.

Yet it is not enough not to seek it, we must give it over to God, and not just replace it with another superficial end. We must focus our thoughts on God.

This will give us two effects: beauty in this world, and beauty in the world to come. In this world, we will gain that inner loveliness that true lovers of beauty will recognize. In the next world, we will gain the highest Beauty of all -- God. Being with Him will make us truly beautiful.

On a side note, this is the poem that inspired Meredith of Basia Me, Catholica Sum to cut off her beautiful hair. She read, "Loose locks, long locks, lovelocks . . ." and then thought, "Locks for Love," and the next thing anyone knew, her hair had gone from below her waist to her shoulders. She's living proof that the poem is right, too, because it hasn't detracted from her attractiveness in the least.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


by William Butler Yeats

"In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." --Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

* * *

This poem pretty much describes my attitude on politics. I can accept that it's important, and yet I can't seem to fix my attention on it. I am more likely just to trust people who seem like they know what they are talking about. I myself am far more interested in whatever personal matters are on my mind at the time.

The puzzling thing about the poem is the question of the speaker. In the beginning, the speaker describes herself as, "I, that girl standing there." However, in the last two lines, the speaker wishes to be "young again" and be holding a girl. He seems to be an old man, not a young girl.

My conclusion is that there are two speakers. I can't be entirely sure where one leaves off and the other begins, but it seems to me that the only lines spoken by the old man are the last two.

Another possible conclusion is that "that girl standing there" is not really in apposition with "I," but instead is a random thought, a distraction, passing through the speaker's mind. That is not what is suggested by the grammar; still, one must make allowances for the tendency of modern poets to confuse the grammar in their poems, deliberately leaving things unclear.

It seems to me very appropriate, however, for a girl to be saying these lines. She is more interested in people than in ideas. This, it seems to me, is a reason why it took so long for women to gain the vote. A good many of them didn't want it, because they just weren't interested in politics. They preferred to let men they trusted -- their husbands and fathers -- make the decisions for them. I vote only because I think the nation needs all the help it can get to keep from going to pot. I don't enjoy political debates like men seem to.

Yet even a man, when he is in love, as seems to be the case with the speaker in the last two lines, can doubt that "the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." To him, the destiny of man is whether or not he gets to hold his love again in his arms. Beside that, politics can pall.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Seafarer, part IV

We all fear God.
He turns the earth,
He set it swinging firmly in space,
Gave life to the world and light to the sky.
Death leaps at the fools who forget their God.
He who lives humbly has angels from Heaven
To carry him courage and strength and belief.
A man must conquer pride, not kill it,
Be firm with his fellows, chaste for himself,
Treat all the world as the world deserves,
With love or with hate but never with harm,
Though an enemy seek to scorch him in hell,
Or set the flames of a funeral pyre
Under his lord. Fate is stronger
And God mightier than any man's mind.
Our thoughts should turn to where our home is,
Consider the ways of coming there,
Then strive for sure permission for us
To rise to that eternal joy,
That life born in the love of God
And the hope of Heaven. Praise the Holy
Grace of Him who honored us,
Eternal, unchanging creator of earth. Amen.

* * *

Finally I manage to finish my series on "The Seafarer."

This section is basically the summary and the moral. The speaker has told us about the ocean, about life, and about death, and now he tells us what we need to do: set our minds on heaven, not on earth. We have to live our lives in a way that will lead us to heaven. It is a struggle. But God is so powerful, the maker of the earth and the source of all things, so that following Him is our natural duty.

It concludes with a short prayer in praise of God the Creator: Praise the Holy Grace of Him who honored us, eternal, unchanging creator of earth.


Friday, July 01, 2005

The Seafarer, part III

Thus the joys of God
Are fervent with life, where life itself
Fades quickly into the earth. The wealth
Of the world neither reaches to Heaven nor remains.
No man has ever faced the dawn
Certain which of Fate's three threats
Would fall: illness, or age, or an enemy's
Sword, snatching the life form his soul.
The praise the living pour on the dead
Flowers from reputation: plant
An earthly life of profit reaped
Even from hatred and rancor, of bravery
Flung in the devil's face, and death
Can only bring you earthly praise
And a song to celebrate a place
With the angels, life eternally blessed
In the hosts of Heaven.

The days are gone
When the kingdoms of earth flourished in glory;
Now there are no rulers, no emperors,
No givers of gold, as once there were,
When wonderful things were worked among them
And they lived in lordly magnificence.
Those powers have vanished, those pleasures are dead.
The weakest survives and the world continues,
Kept spinning by toil. All glory is tarnished.
The world's honor ages and shrinks,
Bent like the men who mold it. Their faces
Blanch as time advances, their beards
Wither and they mourn the memory of friends,
The sons of princes, sown in the dust.
The soul stripped of its flesh knows nothing
Of sweetness or sour, feels no pain,
Bends neither its hand nor its brain. A brother
Opens his palms and pours down gold
On his kinsman's grave, strewing his coffin
With treasures intended for Heaven, but nothing
Golden shakes the wrath of God
For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing
Hidden on earth rises to Heaven.

* * *

The homiletic tone of the poem begins here. The connection between this half of the poem and the previous half is not clearly expressed. But I think it is implicit that the joys of God are as full of life compared to those of earth as those of the sea are compared to the land. The sea is described in order to explain spiritual things. The sea, as is said earlier in the poem, is something one has to battle with. This is the same with the spiritual life. It is a journey, an exile, a struggle. And yet the soul wants to go, wants to experience the joys of God which are as wonderful and as difficult to attain as the destinations of a long sea voyage. Man has a longing for heaven like the sea-longing which urges at the heart of the seafarer.

There follows a description of the shortcomings of earthly things. Wealth, health, even life are transitory, uncertain things. They can easily be taken away. Prosperity can not only be taken away from a single man, but from the world. The world's glory is departing.

The section about the fading glory of earth reminds me of Tolkien. That makes sense, since Tolkien's expertise was in old poems of this sort. "All glory is tarnished." That, coupled with the idea of sea-longing, could be used as a summary of the thoughts of the Elves in later days.

Between the section about the uncertainty of life and the fading glory of earth is a section about death. There is a fusion of the Christian ideal and the old heroic ideal: one must win heaven, but the focus is not on prayers. The kind of hero that wins a reputation -- the life-after-death of the pagan world -- is the same kind as wins heaven. The qualities necessary are the same: bravery, and the ability to win profit even from the hatred of others.

There is more about death after the part about the world's vanishing honor. Death is still a fearsome foe, robbing the person of the ability to do anything further. And here there is also a distinct split from the heroic ideal: although reputation is won by virtue, which can also win heaven, the mere fact that kinsmen still honor you is no guarantee that you will go to heaven. An honored tomb will not win you God's mercy. Your only hope is in the things you did in your life.