Breathers of wisdom won without a quest,
Quaint uncouth dreamers, voices high and strange;
Flutists of lands where beauty hath no change,
And wintry grief is a forgotten guest,
Sweet murmurers of everlasting rest,
For whom glad days have ever yet to run,
And moments are as aeons, and the sun
But ever sunken half-way toward the west.
Often to me who heard you in your day,
With close rapt ears, it could not choose but seem
That earth, our mother, searching in what way
Men’s hearts might know her spirit’s inmost dream;
Ever at rest beneath life’s change and stir,
Made you her soul, and bade you pipe for her.
In those mute days when spring was in her glee,
And hope was strong, we knew not why or how,
And earth, the mother, dreamed with brooding brow,
Musing on life, and what the hours might be,
When life should ripen to maternity,
Then like high flutes in silvery interchange
Ye piped with voices still and sweet and strange,
And ever as ye piped, on every tree
The great buds swelled; among the pensive woods
The spirits of first flowers awoke and flung
From buried faces the close-fitting hoods,
And listened to your piping till they fell,
The frail spring-beauty with her perfumed bell,
The wind-flower, and the spotted adder-tongue.
All the day long, wherever pools might be
Among the golden meadows, where the air
Stood in a dream, as it were moorèd there
For ever in a noon-tide reverie,
Or where the birds made riot of their glee
In the still woods, and the hot sun shone down,
Crossed with warm lucent shadows on the brown
Leaf-paven pools, that bubbled dreamily,
Or far away in whispering river meads
And watery marshes where the brooding noon,
Full with the wonder of its own sweet boon,
Nestled and slept among the noiseless reeds,
Ye sat and murmured, motionless as they,
With eyes that dreamed beyond the night and day.
And when day passed and over heaven’s height,
Thin with the many stars and cool with dew,
The fingers of the deep hours slowly drew
The wonder of the ever-healing night,
No grief or loneliness or rapt delight
Or weight of silence ever brought to you
Slumber or rest; only your voices grew
More high and solemn; slowly with hushed flight
Ye saw the echoing hours go by, long-drawn,
Nor ever stirred, watching with fathomless eyes,
And with your countless clear antiphonies
Filling the earth and heaven, even till dawn,
Last-risen, found you with its first pale gleam,
Still with soft throats unaltered in your dream.
And slowly as we heard you, day by day,
The stillness of enchanted reveries
Bound brain and spirit and half-closèd eyes,
In some divine sweet wonder dream astray;
To us no sorrow or upreared dismay
Nor any discord came, but evermore
The voices of mankind, the outer roar,
Grew strange and murmurous, faint and far away.
Morning and noon and midnight exquisitely,
Rapt with your voices, this alone we knew,
Cities might change and fall, and men might die,
Secure were we, content to dream with you
That change and pain are shadows faint and fleet,
And dreams are real, and life is only sweet.
I’ve copied the poem out of The Poems of Archibald Lampman, 3rd edition 1905. Edited and with a Memoir by Duncan Campbell Scott. Lampman is known as one of Canada’s “Confederation Poets”; he wrote in what is considered a Late Romantic style, the Sonnet form being perhaps his best-loved. His poetic oeuvre is to a large extent concerned with descriptive lyrical observations of and meditations on the natural world, both micro and macro; the Canadian wilderness and the details of its changing moods and seasons.
“The Frogs” appeared in Lampman’s first, self-published collection, Among the Millet (1888). (In his remembrance, Scott tells us that Lampman’s wife had recently “received a small legacy, which was faithfully placed at her husband’s disposal”, thus expediting his decision to take on the risk of the publication.)
Reading this poem aloud, quietly, unhurriedly, has for me an utterly hypnotic effect. A good, calming, settling effect; a smiling effect.
While the stanzas’ varied indentation can be distracting on first reading, on subsequent visits I come to appreciate its aesthetic value and efficacy in staying our momentum, our tendency to aim to ‘get through’, to finish an undertaking; of course, the indentation also reflects the rhyme scheme within each sonnet-unit of the whole sonnet-string.
Poetry’s Sonnet form has existed for nearly a millennium. I appreciate this tenacity of structure; the form would seem to represent something that resonates in the human psyche.
At the end of this post, aligned to the right margin, I’ve provided a very brief look at “the sonnet”, a general overview of the form, which I’d hoped to put into an earlier post. If this is all too much reading, feel free to leave it for another visit.
The poem’s about Time, isn’t it, and our perception of it? About time in the natural world and time in the human world. (Also about frog music…)
I see us humans as snatching fistfuls of what we call space and time out of an inconceivable matrix of ‘infinity’. Our lifetimes, our epochs, eras and eons: our histories. We—our minds—have evolved to comprehend and conceptualize time as chronology, linearity, as movement from beginning to end, from start to finish. We’re not completely resigned to this idea, however, the more so since scientists introduced us to space-time’s relativities, probabilities and uncertainties. And while space for us is three-dimensional, admittedly it seems impossible, after all, to overlook the possibility of the existence of more spatial dimensions. And how many more ‘dimensions’ of time might there be? What a strange predicament we’re in, as humans. More or less aware of certain ultimate limitations, yet forever compelled to work on trying to transcend the various limitations that confront us here and now. To forever not only “live the questions”, but to consciously and self-consciously seek the answers.
Yet all this striving often fails us, falls short at some point.
Beginnings and ends are nice, until it is my ego, my self-awareness, my life, my religion, my planet, that is the subject (endings, especially, can be troublesome). We wonder, is there anything beyond all these recursions, these apparently endless starts and finishes, cycles and spirals? Our ancestors pondered these things, too. Stories, by way of possible explanation or, at least, elucidation, proliferated. The stories and the science do go hand in hand, they feed each other, though at a ‘social distance’. But the myths’ raison d’être is to transcend linear time; they concern mythic time and mythic space. They allow us to ‘experience’ the distant past, and the distant future; they allow us to slow down, even stop time, or at the very least, to make it irrelevant for a while. Religious rituals seek to do the same, to connect us to something independent of our experience of linear time; ‘sacred’ time is mythic time. There are many, many ways to make such connections; they do not depend on our skill but on our attitude. To the extent that we ‘do’ something completely and only for its own sake, answering only to the process involved, with deliberate, full presence, to this extent we touch a greater reality. The word “reverence” comes to mind (but a reverence with room for irreverence—a reverent irreverence, if you will, as good humor can achieve; a reverence that is at once curiosity, wonder, appreciation, respect, awe, joy): suchlike is the attitude required of us if we hope to experience our being-here more deeply, more fully, more, say, meaningfully.
Well, it’s a fair guess that the frogs don’t deal with these issues…
Our frogs occupy mythic space-time; the poet perceives them as embodying ‘the fullness of time’ and for ‘praying without ceasing’, and for those who have ears to hear, as communicating this infinite reality to us.
The frogs don’t worry and wonder about how the future will turn out. They ‘know’ that it will, that ‘all matter of thing shall be well’. A human might call such knowing “trust”, or “faith”; but for a human adult to experience this organically, much preparatory and variably treacherous roundaboutings and immersions in our quotidian experience of reality is usually necessary. Perhaps such knowing finally requires grace, and the acceptance of this grace.
The sonnet form originated in Italy in the 13th century (<suono, sound). A few decades after its arrival in England in the 16th century, it came sometimes to comprise a chain/sequence of 14-line unit-sonnets; these days we generally refer to “the sonnet” as just a single standalone 14-line entity (though I like to think that sequences are still being written somewhere, by someone, as they were by Lampman). The English form also came to differ from the Italian in the final six lines, where instead of two tercets, there was often a quatrain followed by a couplet.
In the English language, iambic pentameter is the meter traditionally employed in a sonnet; also, a strict rhyme scheme is usually adhered to…although the particular scheme comes to be quite variable over different styles and periods. Basically, however, the sonnet’s overall form remains consistent over time and place, and it’s this that makes this form recognizable as such: it consists of an eight-line “octave” followed by a six-line “sestet”. Another specification is more thematic: the sestet marks a “turn” (volta) of emotion and perspective in the sonnet; the octave which precedes the sestet provides an intentionally objective view, a familiar proposal or suggestion of sorts; then, in the turn, the poet suddenly changes her voice into a more subjective and conjectural one, revealing a more personal ‘take’ on the subject.
Wikipedia (whence much of my information here) offers a sample of a sestet which illustrates a “response” to the octave’s “rough inquirer”:
For example, in Matthew Arnold’s “The Better Part”, the rough inquirer, who has had his own way in the octave, is replied to as soon as the sestet commences:
So answerest thou; but why not rather say:
“Hath man no second life? – Pitch this one high!
Sits there no judge in Heaven, our sin to see? –
More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us? Ah! let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as he!”
This 2-part structure is what I like best about the sonnet: it is mind-opening, even heart-opening, to suddenly come upon a new outlook on something that has just been presented beautifully from one point of view. We don’t need to form an opinion one way or other, but we see a ‘thing’ in more than one dimension, as it were. To set up something like that, a dialectic of sorts, is, I think, a wonderful task for the poet, and the reader greatly appreciates such a dignified and challenging conclusion to the little adventure.
Many modern poets still write sonnets, and often still abide by the basic structure, though there’s experimentation with variation, too. The “word sonnet”, for example, contains the usual fourteen lines but each of these lines contains only one word!
In Canada during the last decades of the 19th century, the Confederation Poets, especially Lampman, were known for their sonnets, which were mainly on themes of nature and the poets’ experience of Upper Canada’s wilderness. Lampman’s upbringing and wide later reading had provided a good familiarity with English-language poetry, as well as with the classics of Greek literature. Scott notes that Matthew Arnold was Lampman’s favorite modern poet, but that “Keats was the only poet whose method he carefully studied”. The sonnet was the form he had the greatest keenness for, and towards the end of his life, Lampman reckoned his own sonnets to be, “after all”, his “best work”.