[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.
(White Egrets: page 10)
For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.
Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.
Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest. His poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)
The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.
Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .
(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)
In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled 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!
If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”
For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.
Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.
Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest . .
That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’
When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.
O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.
So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?
He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.
Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:
. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.
And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:
He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”
He also has command of the elegaic tone:
. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .
You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/'errors’, ‘else’/'bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.
In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:
. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.
This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:
I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.
It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.
And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .
It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:
The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!
The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.
. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.
Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:
Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.
As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.