Herd the Bird: A Poem for Ferdinand the Corgi

This is a poem I wrote on behalf of our corgi, Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s views on birds suggest that a corgi does not always learn from experience.

Herd the Bird: A Poem by Ferdinand the Corgi

Herd the bird.
Herd the bird.
I will herd the little bird.

Herd the bird!
Herd the bird!
See me herd the little bird!

Stop it, bird!
Stop it, bird!
You have left my little herd!

Herd the bird.
Herd the bird.
I cannot ever herd the bird.

[To be repeated however many times it takes to get around the block on your stumpy legs, with no wings.]

Ferdinand with a bird he WAS able to herd…

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Swing

This summer, my mother let me bring home a collection of old books that were my childhood favorites. Whenever I read them, I hear the words in her voice, and the spirit of many long-lost summer afternoons, piled around her on the couch with my little siblings, rises around me. I love that.

One I brought home is a well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It appears to have been printed in 1932, so it was already old in my little-girlhood.

On a side note, I learned in adulthood that RLS is related to another favorite author of mine, D. E. Stevenson, who mentions him in several of her books. Her characters quote him sometimes, and his poems find their way into the subtext.

What I love about this poem is how well the rhythm of the verses mimics that of the activity they describe. They swing up into the sky, hang there for the tiniest fraction of a second, and swing back again. Your muscle memory will quickly join your voice, and you will find yourself reading the poem in your chair as if you were reading it on the swing. Up in the air and down!

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown–

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!

Robert Louis Stevenson

This poem must have been a favorite of Stevenson’s or his reading public, because both the cover of the book (above) and the frontispiece (below) are illustrated with a little girl on a swing, and The Swing is the first poem in the book!

I especially like this poem at a time when we are all, more or less, living inside the garden wall. Like the child on the swing, we may catch glimpses of the outer world, only to drop again behind the wall. But in this poem at least, there’s a garden within that wall, and the child on the swing is both excited by the wider vista and content to return to the confines of home.

Snowflakes and Blackberries

It’s snowing this morning, and coincidentally, I ran across a few words I jotted down about snow, several years ago. It was one of those moments that stretches your mind and reminds you of divinity and cosmos.

This reminded me of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her words on blackberries.

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Searching for this quote, I rediscovered the longer poem of which it is a part, and found that it articulates my own belief about the spiritual nature of art. I kept reading, and Elizabeth kept building out the thesis in keeping with my own sense of things.

Human beings are inescapably spiritual. We are inescapably natural. We are created in the image of God, incarnated as He was, fully human and whole-souled just as He was fully human and fully divine. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe all creation is lifted up in Christ. ALL CREATION. This means I see God as much in a tiny snowflake as in a book of theology. I love that.

As a writer, I know I can’t let go of spirit to write about natural life. They are not separate. Not in the smallest detail. Some writing is more obviously “spiritual” or “religious” than others, but I believe all good art, perhaps I would say all “genuine” art, has as much spiritual as natural content. The measure of its greatness is the extent to which the fire of heaven shines through it.

Elizabeth says this more beautifully than I could, so here are her words to feed your thoughts on this snowy morning.

From ‘Aurora Leigh’
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift 5
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant’s face here, coarse and lined,
You’ll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension’s competent,
You’ll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Aye, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed: an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?
The bird’s not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Decades later, I still remember it.

What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?

When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.

There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.

Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.

Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.

A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.

Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.

Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.

I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

and often is his gold complexion dimmed.

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade

when in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.

Sonnet 18 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
By William Shakespearehttp://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/by2g21, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.

Who Has Known Heights

This poem has lingered in the reaches of my consciousness for decades. I don’t recall where I first read it, only that I shared it with my Dad, who understood the feeling it conveyed.

Who Has Known Heights

Who has known heights and depths shall not again
Know peace – not as the calm heart knows
Low, ivied walls; a garden close;
An though he tread the humble ways of men
He shall not speak the common tongue again.

Who has known heights shall bear forevermore
An incommunicable thing
That hurts his heart, as if a wing
Beat at the portal, challenging;
And yet – lured by the gleam his vision wore –
Who once has trodden stars seeks peace no more.

Mary Brent Whiteside

I remember how strongly I felt, reading this poem, how well it expressed my experience then. But now that I’ve found it and read it again, after these decades of life have washed over me, I can see that it is no longer all of my experience.

I do seek peace now.

The heights and depths are there, but they exist more in my inward thoughts. I have learned to guard them, and I have learned that sometimes weariness trumps artistic exuberance.

The memory of those heights tinges my quest for peace with guilt sometimes, and I believe that’s good. I don’t want to be a seeker of peace at any price. I want only to maintain the balance I hadn’t yet discovered in those urgent younger days.

Whether I will or no, I exist within limits. I reread books I’ve read dozens of times. I decide not to watch a film I know will make me cry. I accept the spiritual poetry of scrubbing dirty dishes in warm water in a home of my own.

I choose my quests more cautiously, remembering that final victory may elude me or, more likely, appear in ways and times that can’t be prophesied.

Facets of Close Reading

In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks testily, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical….I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Feigned History

A most fascinating phrase in this rich paragraph is the reference to “history, true or feigned.” We are so accustomed to defining history as the record of what has been true that this seems at first like an attempt to split hairs, perhaps a hopeful weapon against readers who were too ready to assume references in his tales to the World War where Tolkien vigorously denied them. Yet to a man who had invented a complex imaginary world and lived in it for decades, there could be nothing surprising in the idea of “feigned history.” Having taken the giant step from literal to imaginative reality, he could find no difficulty in treating the record of imagined people and events with the same discipline and care expected from real-world chronicles and scholars.

But a record, or study, of what can be found in a work of fiction may not so easily be categorized as “true” or “feigned.” Tolkien, existing in “true” life, must draw on materials from the Creator’s world to create a world of his own, and the reader’s pursuit of his meaning may undermine the idea of allegory as a tool of “domination.” Tolkien notes, “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” (Read my observations on this subject.) He strikes here the head of the nail that drives through critical debates over authorial intention and the existence of any text as an entity independent of its creator. It is also a touch-point between spiritual and literary theology, a bump against the reality that like God, we must create from our own substance, but unlike God, we are not the originator of that substance.

Allegory

“Allegory,” we are told, is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” By this definition, despite Tolkien, every literary work is an allegory.  There is something about our means of communicating that cannot be one-dimensional. “All these things spoke Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spoke he not unto them” (Matthew 13:34). Language itself is allegorical at the most basic level – words describe meaning the way music notes depict sound. The marks themselves are nothing but what we agree to attribute to them. Communication is an equation, an exchange of factors that must always be interpreted to exist at all. Thus, a writer striving to escape interpretation is a paradox.

Alfred Tennyson is a good example, a witness against his own attempt at escape. Despite his expressed irritation with attempts to pinpoint such “hidden meaning” in his poems, he was the master of deeply symbolic, allusive language. The smallest details of vocabulary, meter, and description are laden with “meaning.” (But that is a subject for another day.) “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses, in the poem that bears his name. This is a statement he makes to himself, claiming himself as an influence on the lives of others. But so must those others be a part of him. So are we all constantly brushing against each other, leaving streaks of color, infringement, motivation, reaction, inspiration. So are we all constantly affected and affecting.

Interpretation

In my own years of reading and seeking, I have arrived at a sense that it is not the impulse to interpret and decode that is at issue. Rather, it is the counter-impulse to accept only one interpretation, to open the door in search of meaning and then slam it shut as soon as the first glimmer appears. Tennyson abhorred interpretation that reduced his poems to mathematical simplicity – this means that, this stands for that, as if the poem were a code and a single idea could decipher and replace it. This kind of reading inevitably reduces literature, or any art form, to one dimension. It collapses tension, removes whatever is dynamic or uncertain, and flattens the living entity into one cramped and stunted viewpoint. Too much is lost, too little gained.

The same tight-fisted over-simplification appears in religious life too frequently as well. God eludes us, and instead of pondering the largess of Infinity, we strive feverishly to equate Him with something more manageable. When it is used in this way, allegory is guilty as Tolkien charges it. It is an imposition rather than an interpretation, a willful choice of anxiety over comprehension. Again we collapse the tension we cannot handle.

Meaning

Meaning should be the fruit of any quest for meaning. It seems too obvious to need stating, but replacing the multi-faceted gem with the plain line-drawing is an unworthy fruit, or no fruit at all. Replacement is not the goal.

Real art explores and celebrates what is beyond its ability to depict. “Parables” are necessary because they allow the indescribable mysteries to be carried along in the limitless spaces left for them around the words and ideas we are able to describe. We “read between the lines” instinctively because we are created this way. We know there is “more to this than meets the eye.” We are wired to seek revelation because we are created in the image of the Revelator. Our ability to use this gift will be in direct proportion to our faithful confidence that our own perceptions are a tool of the revelation, but not its final boundaries.

We read closely not to reduce or replace, but to enter fully into what is present, what might be present, in the text and in ourselves. Done correctly, reading enlarges the text as we discern layer upon layer within it. Whatever we find within it, and within ourselves, the object is not to achieve the inner stillness of single meaning. The object is to draw near to our own incarnational connection with the Infinite.

 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash

Aunt Nadia’s House and “Sea Fever”

Memory works two ways for me. Sometimes, it’s linear. I remember a specific event and its context, and I’m sure both are plain facts. Sometimes, it’s associative. I remember things connectedly, and the power of association may overcome aspects of the original history.

This poem, “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, is strongly connected in my memory with my great Aunt Nadia’s house in Rockport, MA. The house was 300+ years old in parts, and a “witch” lived in the oldest room when it was a raw wooden cabin in the woods. I wonder about her. Continue reading