“One Foot in Eden” / Muir


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One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world’s great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time’s handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.


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Below, a word-sketch of Muir teaching. It is by Ernest Marwick, one of the writers whom Muir mentored at Newbattle College, Scotland, in the early 1950s.

Lecture in the Crypt, Newbattle

Up to the window’s edge the sand-hued stone
Sun-lanterned through the leaves, affirmative of the light.
. . . Shadows flickered his face, as the soft voice spoke on
To the room’s chiaroscuro, half-day and tenebrous night.

Some chafed at those hesitant lips, impatient of pause,
Untutored to join that eye, illimitably seeing,
While the poet groped meekly for words to give hint of the cause
Which shone like light on the leaf, more light in his being.

Ernest Marwick
Quoted in Peter Butter Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, 242.



“Adam’s Dream” / Muir


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Adam’s Dream

They say the first dream Adam our father had
After his agelong daydream in the Garden
When heaven and sun woke in his wakening mind,
The earth with all its hills and woods and waters,
The friendly tribes of trees and animals,
And earth’s last wonder Eve (the first great dream
Which is the ground of every dream since then)—
They say he dreamt lying on the naked ground,
The gates shut fast behind him as he lay
Fallen in Eve’s fallen arms, his terror drowned
In her engulfing terror, in the abyss
Whence there’s no further fall, and comfort is—
That he was standing on a rocky ledge
High on the mountainside, bare crag behind,
In front a plain as far as eye could reach,
And on the plain a few small figures running
That were like men and women, yet were so far away
He could not see their faces. On they ran,
And fell, and rose again, and ran, and fell,
And rising were the same and not the same,
Identical or interchangeable,
Different in indifference. As he looked
Still there were more of them, the plain was filling
As by an alien arithmetical magic
Unknown in Eden, a mechanical
Addition without meaning, joining only
Number to number in no mode or order,
Weaving no pattern. For these creatures moved
Towards no fixed mark even when in growing bands
They clashed against each other and clashing fell
In mounds of bodies. For they rose again,
Identical or interchangeable,
And went their way that was not like a way;
Some back and forward, back and forward, some
In a closed circle, wide or narrow, others
In zigzags on the sand. Yet all were busy,
And tense with purpose as they cut the air
Which seemed to press them back. Sometimes they paused
While one stopped one—fortuitous assignations
In the disorder, whereafter two by two
They ran awhile,
Then parted and again were single. Some
Ran straight against the frontier of the plain
Till the horizon drove them back. A few
Stood still and never moved. Then Adam cried
Out of his dream, ‘What are you doing there?’
And the crag answered, ‘Are you doing there?’
‘What are you doing there?’—‘You doing there?’
The animals had withdrawn and from the caves
And woods stared out in fear or condemnation,
Like outlaws or like judges. All at once
Dreaming or half-remembering, ‘This is time’,
Thought Adam in his dream, and time was strange
To one lately in Eden. ‘I must see’,
He cried, ‘the faces. Where are the faces? Who
Are you all out there?’ Then in his changing dream
He was a little nearer, and he saw
They were about some business strange to him
That had a form and sequence past their knowledge;
And that was why they ran so frenziedly.
Yet all, it seemed, made up a story, illustrated
By these the living, the unknowing, cast
Each singly for his part. But Adam longed
For more, not this mere moving pattern, not
This illustrated storybook of mankind
Always a-making, improvised on nothing.
At that he was among them, and saw each face
Was like his face, so that he would have hailed them
As sons of God but that something restrained him.
And he remembered all, Eden, the Fall,
The Promise, and his place, and took their hands
That were his hands, his and his children’s hands,
Cried out and was at peace, and turned again
In love and grief in Eve’s encircling arms.


The 20th century French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote: A presence is a reality; it is a kind of influx; it depends upon us to be permeable to this influx, but not, to tell the truth, to call it forth. Creative fidelity consists in maintaining ourselves actively in a permeable state; and there is a mysterious interchange between this free act and the gift granted in response to it. (Quoted in Edwin Muir: Man and Poet by Peter Butter, 248.) Such a “permeable state” seems to have been one which came naturally to Muir. Likely it’s one of the qualities that endeared people to him; many decades later I, too, feel strongly appreciative of his life and work and recognize a closeness to him on some level. It may be we are all born with a limpidity of this sort, but being in the world, somehow, very soon draws a deep opaqueness through this consciousness in many of us—as it does, suddenly, in Adam’s dreaming / “half-remembering” state, when he sees his descendants and suddenly realizes, but only fleetingly, who we all, as he is, are.

Something in us resonates with this pellucid quality in another. Perhaps it is our imagination which is prodded. One feels a strong intuition of an integrity, of a coming together of visions and of knowings into a coherent wholeness, this sense which so often evades us in the scattering forces of our daily life.

Throughout his life Muir had occasion to teach in several countries. One of his students, fellow-poet George Mackay Brown, wrote of him: He was very pleased that his students were trying to write plays and poems and stories, for he believed that only the exercise of the supreme gift of imagination could save the world from slow decay or quick disaster. He discussed our crude productions with delicacy, kindness and understanding . . . In his company all stir and fret died away . . . The students who went to Newbattle knew and loved them both—‘respect’ is too mild and neutral a word for it. (Butter 243) (The reference in the last sentence is to Muir’s wife, Willa.) Muir firmly believed that only imagination can hope to counter the escalation of impersonal power systems in societies; real communication is contingent on the receptivity-and-response which only imagination can allow. All communication between man and man, except when it is functional, a matter of business, or compulsion, or direction of work or duty, or mass action, or propaganda, is an act of imagination. (Muir, quoted in Butter 248) Having lived through both devastating World Wars and their disastrous social and political and economic preludes and postludes—all whose effects were amplified by burgeoning advances in the sciences—Muir championed the importance of the arts in encouraging the opening and strengthening of human imagination and creativity and thus the prospect of meaningful communication in society.

The viable social contract among humans requires that we seek not only causes but reasons; not only exposition and explanation but interpretation and meaning. While excellent science relies on the movement of imagination and inspiration no less than does art, it’s nevertheless the case that only an objective truth is its aim. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details…a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. (Jonah Lehrer in the Prelude to his Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007) Human beings, to be fully human, must strive to discern both objective truth and subjective truth; we need both the science and the art.

Like “The Animals”, “Adam’s Dream” was originally published in Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. I’m reading it in Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (1960).

“The Animals” / Muir


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The Animals

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.


Poem published originally in Part I of Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. I’m reading it in Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (1960).

As mentioned in the previous post, Muir was a Scottish poet; he was born and spent his childhood on Orkney, the island archipelago north of Scotland’s mainland. Thus he is called a Scottish Orcadian poet. Most of his life however, was spent on the (European) continent, in England, and in the vicinities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.

The problem (if it may be called that) of time engaged Muir’s observations as a persistent backdrop throughout his life, his perspective on it and on our relationship to it evolving through the years. Especially occupying his poetic imagination was our lives’ inherent paradoxes, and the conflicts and contradictions operating within and without us; the poet felt their impact acutely in his life’s diverse experiences.
Muir’s poetry truly blossomed in his later life: all the preceding exacting work in prose, criticism, translation, and earlier poetic efforts, the relationships he forged over years of varied employment, his lifelong sensitivity to life’s personal and social exigencies, all this experience came to slowly coalesce in his poetry during the last quarter of his life, when he was finally able to give this work more concentrated attention. (For some reason it’s considered unusual for a poet to really ‘come into his own’, to write his best poetry, later in life. I’m not sure why this should be; it seems to me that it takes a good part of a lifetime to gain the experience, technical skills, and understanding that would go into great poems. The Muirs spent much of their lives in various locations on the continent, never distant from the colossal political and social upheavals of the 30s and 40s. Working in Prague as Director of the British Institute there, he was in the midst of the February 1948 Communist putsch wherein “…a people whom Muir had seen forgetting the fears bred by the German Occupation were once again engulfed in an atmosphere of terror and mutual suspicion…The atmosphere of hostility and fear was shattering to him. Many of his friends fled the country; others were imprisoned; for those that remained and were at large he could do nothing since contact with him would be dangerous to them.” (from Peter Butter’s biography of Muir, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, 1966) After finally leaving Prague both he and, particularly, his wife succumbed to a many-weeks-long period of illness. In a 1948 letter to a friend Muir writes, “…I feel at present that I would like leagues and leagues of leisure, for as one gets older the questions that life asks seem to become vaster and vaster and stretch into endlessness. I have got some comfort in the last few weeks in the thought that there is forgiveness in the universe, that everything is not a mere play of forces and wills: I am beginning to understand faintly the Christian idea of forgiveness, very faintly, for it is surely one of the greatest of all ideas…” (quoted in Butter, 213).

“The Debtor” / Muir


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The Debtor

I am debtor to all, to all am I bounden,
Fellowman and beast, season and solstice, darkness and light,
And life and death. On the backs of the dead,
See, I am borne, on lost errands led,
By spent harvests nourished. Forgotten prayers
To gods forgotten bring blessings upon me.
Rusted arrow and broken bow, look, they preserve me
Here in this place. The never-won stronghold
That sank in the ground as the years into time,
Slowly with all its men steadfast and watching,
Keeps me safe now. The ancient waters
Cleanse me, revive me. Victor and vanquished
Give me their passion, their peace and the field.
The meadows of Lethe shed twilight around me.
The dead in their silences keep me in memory,
Have me in hold. To all I am bounden.


Edwin Muir, 1887 – 1959, Scottish poet (writing mainly in English), literary critic, translator and novelist. “The Debtor” was published in his 1949 collection, The Labyrinth; I am reading it in Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (original edition 1960) put together by J. C. Hall and Willa Muir. I’m grateful to the editors of The Heath Introduction to Poetry (3rd. ed., 1988) for including four of Muir’s poems in their selection: I had never heard of this poet before encountering him there, and reading him now I have the strangest feeling that my entire life heretofore has been preparing me for this discovery. Have you ever felt something of this sort? I am not a poet, and the outward circumstances of my life are entirely different from Muir’s, yet I feel myself taken up in a sort of inner entrainment alongside him, as though on a tide of understanding, of affinity, that is ever moving along, outside of time. This may change, of course, as I get to know his work better, but that’s my first impression.

Over the summer I’ll post a couple more of Muir’s poems, and will say a bit more about him, based on Peter Butter’s biography, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet. In the meantime you can access a great summary (very readable and not too long) of his life and work at:

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of the five rivers of the underworld of Hades: drinking its water caused complete forgetfulness in the drinker. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified. (source: Wikipedia)

I found two definitions usually given:
1. in archaic usage, it is the past participle of to bind (now we use bound)
2. in somewhat more current usage (probably on its way to becoming archaic too), it’s an adjective, meaning indebted, beholden; and based on that same root,

to bind: tie, fasten; attach to / on; fasten or hold together;
(passive voice) to be obligatory; be required by duty / moral or legal obligation to do something
(active) to exercise authority, impose constraint or duty upon; put in bonds, restrain
So I’ve given this feeling of being bounden / beholden some thought, and mostly have come up with unanswerable questions. Will spare you the page-long cogitations, but here is the (so far) closest approach to my conclusion:

Ok. Muir felt himself to be bounden.
But whether or not we feel this way about our own lives makes little difference: we pay, regardless. We pay with our lives. All the livings and dyings of our lives are what they (our lives) cost us. But, though the debt may be felt by us to be to what / to whom is behind, to whom / what has come before, get this: the actual payment of the debt . . . is forward! Yes! Surely that’s how it is. We pay off our debt to what is behind by paying forward into what is arriving, what is yet to come.
Wow, crazy. Time having some fun with us: binding the past and the future together, by way of us.

“Mrs Malone” / Farjeon


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Mrs Malone

Mrs Malone
Lived hard by a wood
All on her lonesome
As nobody should.
With her crust on a plate
And her pot on the coal
And none but herself
To converse with, poor soul.
In a shawl and a hood
She got sticks out-o’-door,
On a bit of old sacking
She slept on the floor,
And nobody, nobody
Asked how she fared
Or knew how she managed,
For nobody cared.
Why make a pother
About an old crone?
What for should they bother
With Mrs Malone?

One Monday in winter
With snow on the ground
So thick that a footstep
Fell without sound,
She heard a faint frostbitten
Peck on the pane
And went to the window
To listen again.
There sat a cock-sparrow
Bedraggled and weak
With half-open eyelid
And ice on his beak.
She threw up the sash
And she took the bird in,
And mumbled and fumbled it
Under her chin.
“Ye’re all of a smother,
Ye’re fair overblown!
I’ve room fer another,”
Said Mrs Malone.

Come Tuesday while eating
Her dry morning slice
With the sparrow a-picking
(“Ain’t company nice!”)
She heard on her doorpost
A curious scratch,
And there was a cat
With its claw on the latch.
It was hungry and thirsty
And thin as a lath,
It mewed and it mowed
On the slithery path.
She threw the door open
And warmed up some pap,
And huddled and cuddled it
In her old lap.
“There, there, little brother,
Ye poor skin-an’-bone,
There’s room fer another,”
Said Mrs Malone.

Come Wednesday while all of them
Crouched on the mat
With a crumb for the sparrow,
A sip for the cat,
There was wailing and whining
Outside in the wood,
And there sat a vixen
With six of her brood.
She was haggard and ragged
And worn to a shred,
And her half-dozen babies
Were only half-fed,
But Mrs Malone, crying
“My! ain’t they sweet!”
Happed them and lapped them
And gave them to eat.
“You warm yourself, mother,
Ye’re cold as a stone!
There’s room fer another,”
Said Mrs Malone.

Come Thursday a donkey
Stepped in off the road
With sores on his withers
From bearing a load.
Come Friday when icicles
Pierced the white air
Down from the mountainside
Lumbered a bear.
For each she had something,
If little, to give—
“Lord knows, the poor critters
Must all of ’em live.”
She gave them her sacking,
Her hood and her shawl,
Her loaf and her teapot—
She gave them her all.
“What with one thing and t’other
Me fambily’s grown,
And there’s room fer another,”
Said Mrs Malone.

Come Saturday evening
When time was to sup
Mrs Malone
Had forgot to sit up.
The cat said meeow,
And the sparrow said peep,
The vixen, she’s sleeping,
The bear, let her sleep.
On the back of the donkey
They bore her away,
Through trees and up mountains
Beyond night and day,
Till come Sunday morning
They brought her in state
Through the last cloudbank
As far as the Gate.
“Who is it,” asked Peter,
You have with you there?”
And donkey and sparrow,
Cat, vixen and bear

Exclaimed, “Do you tell us
Up here she’s unknown?
It’s our mother, God bless us!
It’s Mrs Malone
Whose havings were few
And whose holding was small
And whose heart was so big
It had room for us all.”
Then Mrs Malone
Of a sudden awoke,
She rubbed her two eyeballs
And anxiously spoke:
“Where am I, to goodness,
And what do I see?
My dears, let’s turn back,
This ain’t no place fer me!”
But Peter said, “Mother
Go in to the Throne.
There’s room fer another
One, Mrs Malone.”


Eleanor Farjeon, 1881-1965, English author of short stories, novels, plays, history, works of satire, and many poems, is among the most important of children’s writers of the twentieth century. Awards received included the Carnegie Medal and the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen Medal, as well as the inaugural Regina Medal of the United States-based Catholic Library Association. In 1966, the Children’s Book Circle, a society of publishers, founded the Eleanor Farjeon Award to recognize outstanding service of the often unsung heroes who contribute to any aspect of the world of children’s books in Britain.

I found “Mrs Malone” in Farjeon’s Blackbird Has Spoken: Selected Poems for Children (1999), an attentive compilation, with Introduction, by anthologist and producer of literary programs, Anne Harvey. Its 144 pages make a smallish book, but it abounds with treasures (including “A Morning Song: For the First Day of Spring”, popularly known as “Morning Has Broken”). The poems all reveal a generous, wise and caring personality, with great sensitivity to the natural world and the human’s place within it.

“Mrs Malone” is a simple and elegant example of narrative poetry, . . . a form of poetry that tells a story, often making the voices of a narrator and characters as well; the entire story is usually written in metered verse. (en.wikipedia.org)

“Root Cellar” / Roethke


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Root Cellar

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.


Source: The Heath Introduction to Poetry 3rd ed. 1988.
Includes 26-page Preface, On Poetry, by the Editor, Joseph de Roche, which covers a lot of ground about poetry’s stylistic elements and their use and development over the centuries. In its last paragraph he writes:
The novelist E. M. Forster once suggested we should think of writers not as men and women locked into different centuries, but as men and women sitting around a table carrying on a living conversation . . . Not everyone, after all, becomes our close friend. Nonetheless, the more we open our lives to experience, the richer our lives become. The more poets and poems we come to understand, the livelier the world becomes, no matter what century they, or we, have been fated to live in.
This is an older collection, but truly inspired in its selections of English-language poetry ranging from the 8th century to the end of the 20th. Many poets are represented in six temporal / historical sections, each often by several poems. (Approaching the 20th and 21st centuries, increasing numbers of writers are portrayed.) Each period is introduced by a short summary, A Brief History, about the relevant stylistic and historical context. Among the most illuminating collections I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963) was, in the opinion of some of his more-or-less contemporaries (including novelist and one-time U.S. Poet Laureate, James Dickey, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1968), the greatest poet the United States had produced to date.
Though he was not as prolific as many of his peers (in part because he was also a devoted, influential and beloved teacher of poetry), Roethke’s verse is carefully crafted and continually strives to embody his wide and often unbearably intense experience of the ecstasy and anguish of living. He was relentlessly, vitally human, with a great appreciation for all life, and all facets of life.
The impact made on him by his youthful experiences of assisting in his family’s greenhouse business were among the first to profoundly and lastingly influence his life and work. Poet Richard Blessing’s impression of Roethke’s œvre, as reflecting the correspondences of the world of the greenhouse to the human being’s inner world:
The sensual world of the greenhouse is the first garden from which we have all emerged, and the attempt to make meaning of it, to recall the energies of that place occupies us all in the lonely chill of our adult beds. . . (We comprehend that) life is dynamic, not static; that the energy of the moment from the past preserves it, in part, in the present; that experience is a continuum, not a collection of dead instants preserved and pinned on walls we have left behind. (via poetryfoundation.org)

Roethke was recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, two National Book Awards, and a Bollingen Prize.
(The Bollingen Prize is awarded every two years for the best volume of poetry by an American published during those years, or for a poet’s lifetime achievement in his or her art. Launched in 1948 and originally conferred by the Library of Congress, the prize is now administered by the Yale University Library. The Bollingen Foundation’s name was philanthropists’ Paul and Mary Mellon’s way of honoring C. G. Jung, who had a country retreat near a Swiss village called Bollingen.)

This collection contains 7 poems by Roethke, including what is probably his best-known, “In a Dark Time”. I must not start making a habit of these post ‘extensions’, but will quote just one verse from this 4-verse poem (if only to make clear to the reader that Roethke wrote about much more than plant life):

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

—“In a Dark Time”, excerpt

«Die Poesie» / Goethe


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Die Poesie

Gott sandte seinen rohen Kindern
Gesetz und Ordnung, Wissenschaft und Kunst,
Begabte die mit aller Himmelsgunst
Der Erde grasses Los zu mindern.
Sie kamen nackt vom Himmel an
Und wussten sich nicht zu benehmen;
Die Poesie zog ihnen Kleider an,
Und keine hatte sich zu schämen.


In Goethe Gedichte II: Gedankenlyrik; Westöstlicher Diwan, 1982, Diogenes Taschenbuch 20438.



God sent his rough-hewn, hapless children
Law and Order, Learning, Art,
Bestowing on them all of heaven’s favours
To lighten for them striving earth’s grim lot.

Unclad they came from heaven, and
Unsure as to their nature or which part to play . . .
Then Poetry arrayed their frames in fitting garb—
And Shame? She blanched and crept away!


Perhaps especially in the case of poetry, interpretation happens simultaneously and inevitably with this process of rendering lines of words into another language, i.e., translation. I hope I’ve done some justice to Goethe’s verse, however verbosely and rather loosely. Thanks to the good folks at LEO.org for help with that chameleony grass.


Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1749-1832, is generally considered Germany’s greatest and most influential literary figure of the modern era. Foremost a writer of epic and lyric poetry, he was also playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and prolific amateur artist. There are many sources online concerning Goethe and his legacy; I have accessed a thoroughly readable summary of his life and work, and their social and literary contexts, at Britannica.com. It is written by Nicholas Boyle, updated August 2015 (accessed March 2017). Please read if you want to get a good feel for the scope of Goethe’s stature and accomplishments. An excerpt, from towards the end of the piece:

If there is a single theme running through Goethe’s huge and varied literary output, it is his reflection on subjectivity—his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives. Yet he also shows how, without leaving that self-made world, we collide all the time with the reality of things. Ultimately, Goethe believes, this reality is not alien or hostile to us, because, whatever it is, we—and our capacity for experience—ultimately derive from it too. Goethe therefore calls it Nature, that out of which we are born.

All right, so hold on . . . This “reality of things” just mentioned: so there is an “I” and there are “things” . . . My thinking is that each of these things is a subjectivity in itself, just like I am, whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral. What is “Nature” but a thronging mass of subjectivities?
We humans seem, in our very humanity, to endlessly attempt to seek out objectivity, some measure of it at least; we call this seeking the truth. Whether through immersion in nature, in scientific pursuit, philosophy, art, theology / religion / spirituality / mysticism—even travel, reading, relationships—we seek the same “thing”, with greater or lesser awareness of our aspiration. Poetry / poesy itself is, at its heart, a tool we employ to try to touch, to comprehend, some objective truth in this life . . . yet the final mystery remains, always remains. So do we also seek comfort in truth? I think we must do. And will we find it? . . . And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time . . . / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well . . . (T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding”)
I guess that’s where hope comes in. (Though Eliot has a thing or two to say about that, too. For another day.)

Decades ago, I came across the following line that appears in Goethe’s tragic play / epic poem, Faust, Part Two. It occurs in a pivotal conversation between Faust and Mephistopheles*, though I don’t know the exact context. It is spoken by Mephistopheles:
Gestaltung, Umgestaltung,
Des ewigen Sinnes ewige Unterhaltung.

(Formation, transformation, / Eternal Mind’s eternal occupation.) (der Sinn is hard to translate; it can mean sense, meaning, consciousness, memory, intellect. The word mind would not normally be capitalized in English, but I’ve taken the liberty of doing that.)
Asking your indulgence, dear reader, I quote this line for you because, though my knowledge of the German language is weak, these words have stayed with me, teasing me with a measure of truth, and mystery, through the years.

*Mephistopheles is a representative of Lucifer / Satan. There are many ways to interpret his action in the play, as well as the work’s final outcome—which may well offer redemption after the tragedy has played itself out.

«Neige, neige blanche» / comptine traditionelle


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Neige, neige blanche

Neige, neige blanche
Tombe sur les manches
Et sur mon tout petit nez
Qui est tout gelé.

Neige, neige blanche
Tombe sur ma tête
Et sur mes tout gros souliers
Qui sont tout mouillés.

Neige, neige blanche,
Viens que je te mange:
Pose-toi tout doucement
Comme un p’tit fondant.


A traditional French children’s song.
Honestly, such songs must be the best way to learn a (new) language: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, even heart—it’s all there.

Source: Les plus belles comptines de Noël 2009; de la collection «Succès», Les Éditions Éveil & Découvertes.
CD included in this colourful 26-page book. Illustrators: Francesca Assirelli, Martina Peluso. Musical arrangements: Collectif Enfance.
For younger children, I can also strongly recommend a small but beautiful board book + CD with 20 comptines. It too is called «Les plus belles comptines de Noël», produced by Formulette; éditeur Jeunesse, 2014. Its producer/creator is Rémi Guichard; the songs are also interpreted by Rémi, along with les ateliers chansons d’Auxerre; illustrations by Marie-Pierre Tiffoin. (In fact, the music on this CD is quieter, gentler than on the first one mentioned. The selection of songs is somewhat similar, but I’d say, with more variety in the presentation.)

«Neige, neige blanche»—la mélodie (solfège):

do (do) sol (sol) mi — re —
do (do) sol sol mi — re —
sol sol la la ti ti do —
sol fa mi re do — — —

“Tale” / Merwin


, , , , , , , , , , ,


After many winters the moss
finds the sawdust crushed bark chips
and says old friend
old friend


This lyric fragment appears as epigraph to W. S. Merwin‘s longer poem, “Unchopping a Tree“. This latter, republished in 2014 (originally collected in The Miner’s Pale Children), takes the form of a lovely little stand-alone book of the same title. The work is illustrated by drawings of artist Liz Ward: her exquisite studies of the cellular structures of trees are created with silverpoint and tinted gesso on paper and on panel. Created over 14 years, this little art collection is titled, The Interior Life of a Tree.

(On completing the book, I discovered that the lines of “Tale” quoted above are actually excerpted from a longer prose poem; and that this same excerpt first appeared in the 1970 collection, The Carrier of Ladders, which work earned Merwin the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.)

A prolific and respected poet, and translator from many languages, Merwin has received a commensurate degree of recognition throughout his life. Just a few of these honours: the inauguratory Wallace Stevens Award (also known as the Dorothea Tanning Prize, one of the highest honours bestowed by the Academy of American Poets); the National Book Award for Poetry; the Pen Translation Prize; the Bollingen Prize for Poetry; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (an initiative of the Poetry Foundation, this is one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets and among the largest literary honors for work in the English language). He has twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has served as the United States Poet Laureate. In 2013, he was named the first Poet Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award (Warsaw).

Merwin has resolutely addressed various themes in his writing. One of his most abiding passions has been a love for the natural world and a commitment to a “deep ecology” wherein humanity’s relationship with nature is keenly understood to be one of holism and radical interdependence. He has, for nearly 4 decades, been planting a sustainable forest of over 800 species of palm across 18 acres in Hawaii. This is the Merwin Conservancy, whose mission is . . . to preserve the living legacy of W. S. Merwin, his home and palm forest, for future retreat and study for botanists and writers, for environmental advocacy and community education. (merwinconservancy.org)

Planting a tree may be a little like writing a poem: nurturing new life by gathering and shaping into freshly-coherent form something that we care deeply about . . . And reading a poem, then, like getting to know an individual tree, consciously sharing some of your awareness, your energy, your time, your life, with it.

Final word to the poet, on poetry:
I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.