Clearly the blue river chimes in its flowing
Under my eye;
Warmly and broadly the south winds are blowing
Over the sky.
One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.
Spring will come never more.
Death waits at the door.
See! our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d–we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.
The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall no more be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
Hark! death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.
The old earth
Had a birth,
As all men know,
And the old earth must die.
So let the warm winds range,
And the blue wave beat the shore;
For even and morn
Ye will never see
All things were born.
Ye will come never more,
For all things must die.
This poem is supposed to be read in partnership with the previous poem I posted yesterday, Nothing will die. Today’s poem, as you can tell from its title, is a lot darker, though I don’t think that it’s necessarily sadder, in the final analysis.
You will notice that this poem contains many of the same elements as yesterday’s; we still have the “stream”, the “wind”, the “clouds” and the “heart.” However, in the shadow of mortality hangs heavy over this poem, and we are constantly aware that the time will come when the stream will “cease to flow”, the wind will “cease to flow”, the clouds “cease to fleet” and the heart “cease to beat”. From the perspective of this poem, nature is not an unending cycle, but rather something heading inevitably for its definite end; “Spring will come never more… Death waits at the door”, writes Tennyson.
The piece becomes quite harrowing as we get into an actual physical description of death. The jaw “falling”, the “red cheek paling”, “Ice with the warm blood mixing” and “the eyeballs fixing” are all images that made me feel very cold as I read this. Death, in this poem, is long drawn out (the passing bells ring “Nine times”) but the departing souls are “merry”. Perhaps it is their awareness of mortality that spurs them to partake of “wine” and “merrymaking”, and their hearts to beat “in joyance”… I think that it is our awareness of death that encourages us to enjoy and savour life, as well as to make progress as a species.
For me, the defining notion in this poem is this: “The old earth/ Had a birth… and the old earth must die”; “All things were born… all things must die.” This is the exact opposite to the ideas presented in Nothing will die, where we see a cyclical world that was never created, and will “never fade” — where there is no death, but only change. Here, the earth was created and so must die — it is not eternal. This world is full of suffering, sadness, and death, but there is also joy and passion, and perhaps love (the poem ends with, “Ye will come never more”).
I find the contrast between these two poems (today’s and yesterday’s) really fascinating because to me they evoke the contrast between a belief-system that includes reincarnation, and one that does not. Our beliefs about life after death or otherwise surely make a huge impact on the way we live our lives. I’m wondering if life feels more precious if you feel this life is your only, fleeting chance to experience this world, or if feeling part of an unending cycle is something that brings great peace… but that’s a conversation for another time! What do you think?
When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.
Nothing will die;
All things will change
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.
The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.
This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.
In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.
The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.
I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.
A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
This is another beautiful, profound and spiritual poem by Whitman. I love the use of the image of a spider launching its “gossamer thread” to create a bridge through the air in order to venture into the “oceans of space” surrounding it. This image is then beautifully likened to the Soul — the soul of any person, yes, but also the soul of the Poet — as it is ceaselessly “musing, venturing, throwing,- seeking the spheres, to connect them”. I love this last phrase because it has definite connotations of the poetic process, of making bridges and letting down anchors…”till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere”.
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.
In my little book of selected Blake, this is the first poem. It is from his ‘Poetical Sketches’. It is a poem to the evening star, which is described in the first line as a “fair-hair’d angel”. This star, that watches over the evening, is addressed as though it were God, or some great Being overlooking the world in its twilight.
For me, phrases like “thy bright torch of love” and “thy radiant crown” reinforce this sense of a deity; this is religious language. It is even the star, according to the poem, who “drawest the/ Blue curtains of the sky”, and brings the evening. Blake continues with his prayer-like language as he invokes the star, asking it to “Smile on our loves”, “scatter thy dew/ On every flower”, and “Let thy west wind sleep on/ The lake”. I love that line about the west wind.
But this star is of the evening, not the night, and “Soon, full soon,/Dost thou withdraw.” Once the star is no longer visible, and it is true night, the “wolf rages wide”, and the “lion glares”… and the speaker’s flock is in danger. Blake ends the poem with a final supplication: since the fleeces of the sheep are “cover’d with /Thy sacred dew”, he asks the star to “protect them with thine influence.”
I think this is just a beautiful poem. You can read it as a shepherd superstitiously supplicating the evening star to protect his sheep in the night, or also as a man asking God (or whatever means the Good [thank you, Auden]) to protect those he loves. I love the image of the wolves and lions being kept at bay by their knowledge that the star is watching them — by the fact that they can see it, bright in the sky, observing their actions. As soon as they do not think that they are being observed — as soon as total darkness falls — they go for the sheep. They become monsters. I think that some human being are like that too; we need to believe that our actions matter — that they are being witnessed, considered, even judged.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I started reading and loving Mary Oliver’s poems just after I left school, when a friend gave me this to read. Since then I have enjoyed the collections ‘Dream Work’ (from which this poem is taken) and ‘House of Light’. I think what really attracts me about Oliver’s work is its startling freshness. I love her descriptions of nature because they are real and not idealised: she allows nature its contrasts of light and dark, rough and smooth, life and death, and the world she depicts is all the more beautiful for it. There is something gloriously simple and physical about her images. It’s like you come back from her poems with your face flushed from the cold mountain air, and earth under your fingernails. I love this poem for its simple wisdom.