A Parental Ode

Those who are familiar with my compositions, or have heard me speak on poetry, know that I have a kinship the old poet Thomas Hood.  Sometimes reading a poet feels like reading lines from a dear friend, and that’s the case with me and Tom.  Though long deceased, his poetic style and imagery has quite easily sailed through time unto today.  Whilst reacquainting myself with his works recently, I ran across this wonderful, and surprising, poem that struck a chord for me.  It is a delightful work and captures a very unique part of the human experience.

     A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

THOU happy, happy elf!
(But stop,—first let me kiss away that tear)—
Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he ’s poking peas into his ear!)
Thou merry, laughing sprite!
With spirits feather-light,
Untouched by sorrow, and unsoiled by sin—
(Good heavens! the child is swallowing a pin!)

Thou little tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air—
(The door! the door! he ’ll tumble down the stair!)
Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he ’ll set his pinafore a-fire!)
Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In Love’s dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents—(Drat the boy!
There goes my ink!)

Thou cherub—but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
Thou human humming-bee extracting honey
From ev’ry blossom in the world that blows,
Singing in Youth’s Elysium ever sunny,
(Another tumble!—that ’s his precious nose!)
Thy father’s pride and hope!
(He ’ll break the mirror with that skipping-rope!)
With pure heart newly stamped from Nature’s mint—
(Where did he learn that squint?)

Thou young domestic dove!
(He ’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
Dear nurseling of the hymeneal nest!
(Are those torn clothes his best!)
Little epitome of man!
(He ’ll climb upon the table, that ’s his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life—
(He ’s got a knife!)

Thou enviable being!
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
Play on, play on,
My elfin John!
Toss the light ball—bestride the stick—
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies buoyant as the thistle down,
Prompting the face grotesque, and antic brisk,
With many a lamb-like frisk,
(He ’s got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star,—
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove,—
(I tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he ’s sent above!)

— Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

There is at once a joyful and funny, but also maddening and terrifying reality at play in these lines that those who have parented a 3 year old will immediately recognize.  Having now a 3 1/2 year old “imp of mirth and joy” of my own (not to mention a 10 month old!), I can commiserate with this poem intimately, to say the least.

I have often shared this face of my dear friend Tom, who sees their “human humming-bee” bouncing off the walls or throwing the world’s largest tantrum:

thomas-hood

The no-nonsense Thomas Hood, after a long, hard day of writing poetry.

…But I have much more (as I’m sure Tom did as well) felt drawn to the joy detailed so elegantly in the lines penned.  He saw his son for who he was and loved him dearly.  I have found it difficult being a good parent, and difficulty even understanding what “good” parenting is.  By the looks of it from Tom, it always has been and always will be hard.

My dear Leif, “thou tiny image of myself,” now 3 1/2 yrs. old, you are treasured.

IMG_1686

Leif, poignantly capturing the true nature of his age.

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The Blacksmith’s New Year

A new year dawns, and again we are thrust into the resolution predicament.  We know in our heart of hearts no resolution could be made in such a way this New Year’s eve as to be a huge success, at least not in the way we envision …or even at all.  And so it continues year after year, this cycle of desiring …something.  To get thinner, to eat better, to save more, to stop any number of bad habits, but in many ways our resolutions are shadows of desiring something more profound.

And so enters the Village Blacksmith:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp and black and long;
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,—
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With a measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And the children coming home from school,
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from the threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach;
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Oh to be like the blacksmith!  I’m not sure this type of man walks our streets very often anymore.  What a noble thought to be able to look the whole world in the face… to owe not any man… to be called a worthy friend!  Surely times have changed.  The world has become more complex, more stressful, more subjective.  Or has it truly?  I’m skeptical it has.  Sometimes I think of our present age and find our way and times is a simply a smoky haze we only get lost in, never found.  Surely there are complexities never thought of in the age of man, but these complexities are once known truths melted into muddy illusions.  The noble blacksmith is something of a bygone age I fear.

So how would this man, this blacksmith enter into the new year?  I think he would continue doing those three monumentally difficult things: toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing.  Something tells me he isn’t about to try the Atkin’s diet for the 5th year running.  He has his sights on something far more rich and far more challenging, to have that “nearly” impossible virtue: integrity.

For me this upcoming year, having integrity would mean coming to grips with the fact that I need to take continual steps to become more like Kierkegaard’s “Sacrificed Man,” of whom this world, through all ages continually think is silly.  I need to be not ashamed of the fact this will sound like utter nonsense to those who don’t profess this Man to be their Creator and Friend.  Yet I would hope that they, like those children coming home from school, would love to see my flaming forge and hear my bellows roar, watching my burning sparks fly like chaff as I worked.  And I would love them regardless of how ‘out of date’ or ‘simple’ they thought I was, or whatever face they carried or humors they brought for baggage.  No condemnation from the blacksmith, no hate, just service in faith.  I need to work that faith like a heavy sledge, measured and slow, not floating through the breeze like a rainless cloud.  I need to beat at it to make it ring like the village bell tolling for all to hear: I, indeed I, rely on one name alone for my comfort and hope: Jesus Christ.

No resolutions once again this year’s twilight for me.  No wistful, yet resolute hope for a change of habit.  Nothing except perhaps to toil, to rejoice, to sorrow….and also to remember this, so wonderfully said by William Gurnall in the mid 1600s:

It distills a sweetness into all the believer hath or doth , when he finds any comfort in his bosom, any enlargement of heart in duty, any support under temptations – to consider whence came all these, what friend sends them in.  They come not from my own cistern, or any creature’s.

O it is my God that hath been here, and left his sweet perfume of comfort behind him in my bosom!

my God that hath unawares to me filled my sails with the gales of this Spirit, and brought me off the flats of my own deadness, where I lay aground.

O it is his sweet Spirit that held my head, stayed my heart in such an affliction and temptation, or else I had gone away in a fainting fit of unbelief.  How can this choose but endear God to a gracious soul.

Alchemy in Heaven’s Architrave

In honor of the first real glimpse of the beautiful herald Snow, I wanted to share one of my favorite poems by Walter Leslie Wilmhurst, of which I believe to be the very pinnacle in describing our white guest, who brings both joy and toil.

SNOWFLAKES downfloating from the void
  Upon my face,
Spilth of the silent alchemy employed
  In deeps of space
Where viewless everlasting fingers ply
The power whose secret is the mystery
  That doth my world encase;
Power that with equal ease outshakes
  Yon architrave
Of massy stars in heaven and these frail flakes
  Earth’s floor that pave;
Swings the flamed orbs with infinite time for dower
And strews these velvet jewels not an hour
  Of sunshine that will brave;
Yet of whose clustered crystals none
  But speaks the act
Of the hand that steers each ceaseless-wheeling sun
  And to whose tact
Fire-wreath and spangled ice alike respond;
Thoughts from the void frozen to flower and frond,
  Divinely all compact;
Snowflakes, of pureness unalloyed,
  That in dark space
Are built, and spilt from out the teeming void
  With prodigal grace,
Air-quarried temples though you fall scarce-felt
And all your delicate architecture melt
  To tears upon my face,—
I too am such encrystalled breath
  In the void planned
And bodied forth to surge of life and death;
  And as I stand
Beneath this sacramental spilth of snow,
Crumbling, you whisper: ‘Fear thou not to go
  Back to the viewless hand;
‘Thence to be moulded forth again
  Through time and space
Till thy imperishable self attain
  Such strength and grace
Through endless infinite refinement passed
By the eternal Alchemist that at last
  Thou see Him face to face.’

I applaud you if you actually read the poem published in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917), and didn’t skip ahead to this sentence.  If you did, how dare you! Go back and read it.  This lyric is definitely worth digging into with its intense, difficult language and metaphysical intent.  It reveals much that we take for granted on a daily basis, a simple example being the architecture of each flake of snow which falls from the airy spheres.

I love to think on the possibility that this poem presents:  that all snowflakes are not only built, but designed.  Designed how?  With prodigal grace… though I believe that no grace is prodigal. I think the point coming across is that it is so extravagant, so luxurious to think upon that each flake among trillions could be lovingly designed and created that it seems almost wasteful, especially considering the fact we never even notice it.

And then this beautiful lyric: “Air-quarried temples though you fall scarce-felt And all your delicate architecture melt To tears upon my face”  What a waste! …or is it?  Could the universe and all things, no matter how seemingly insignificant, really be that special?

Finally he exhorts us to relate this to ourselves, to our divine architecture, and the knowledge that we will melt as tears one day, be that soon or later.  And I agree that we must Fear not! though I differ slightly in his explanation in the penultimate line.  I hearken to the inferences of Kierkegaard in The Sickness unto Death when I say that the imperishable self will not see the eternal Alchemist face to face through endless infinite refinement, but through the strength, grace, and refinement of Another, who was equally white as snow.

Snow has begun in earnest, finally.  Its beauty, if not unmatched, is at least truly incomparable.  This wondrous habitué is a blessing in this season of winter, though when coming with its natural companion — wind, can be a blessed beast with teeth.

Watch with care, but watch!

Salao

Dear readers, presenting a ballad.  A salao air.

Ah yes, to be salao.

…as told by two bards: Ernest Hemingway and Glen Hansard.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  In the first forty days a boy had been with him.  But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.  It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.  The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

_____

He felt faint again now but he held on the great fish all the strain that he could.  I moved him, he thought.  Maybe this time I can get him over.  Pull, hands, he thought.  Hold up, legs.  Last for me, head.  Last for me.  You never went.  This time I’ll pull him over.

But when he put all of his effort on, starting it well out before the fish came alongside and pulling with all his strength, the fish pulled part way over and then righted himself and swam away.

“Fish,” the old man said.  “Fish, you are going to have to die anyway, Do you have to kill me too?”

…You are killing me, fish, the old man thought.  But you have a right to.  Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother.  Come on and kill me.  I do not care who kills who.

_____

He knew he was beaten now finally and without remedy and he went back to the stern and found the jagged end of the tiller would fit in the slot of the rudder well enough for him to steer.  He settled the sack around his shoulders and put the skiff on her course.  He sailed lightly now and he had no thoughts nor any feelings of any kind.  He was past everything now and he sailed the skiff to make his home port as well and as intelligently as he could.  In the night sharks hit the carcass as someone might pick up crumbs from the table.  The old man paid no attention to them and did not pay any attention to anything except steering.  He only noticed how lightly and how well the skiff sailed now there was no great weight beside her.

…He could feel he was inside the current now and he could see the lights of the beach colonies along the shore.  He knew where he was now and it was nothing to get home.

The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought.  Then he added, sometimes.  And the great sea with our friends and our enemies.  And bed, he thought.  Bed is my friend.  Just bed, he thought.  Bed will be a great thing.  It is easy when you are beaten, he thought.  I never knew how easy it was.

_____

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again.  He was still sleeping on his face and boy was sitting by him watching him.  The old man was dreaming about the lions.

_____

(excerpts) The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway.

Disappointed, The Frames, sung by Glen Hansard.

What happens when the heart just stops, Glen Hansard and The Frames.

Into the Mystic, Van Morrison, sung by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

Glen Hansard

Thank you Glen.  A boy needs heroes.  You are one of mine.

The Cliff and the Old Man

A chapter from a fairy tale by Eric Barnum, illuminated by Matthew Whitney.

The wind whipping off the cliff into the abyss was what finally woke her.  Her bright blue-green eyes glistened and blinked quickly against the golden rays streaming down from the sun.  She shivered as she stood.  The wind was cold and it howled a lonesome tune as it leaped off the edge of the cliff and out over a seemingly never-ending sea.  She picked up a small pebble, threw it as far as she could.  She watched it hover for but a moment before dropping out of view.  Leaning forward carefully she peered over the edge.

“That wind will grab you and carry you away child,” said an ancient voice behind her.  She leaped in surprise from the voice, nearly off the cliff’s edge, and turning, saw an old man sitting on a nearby rock.

“Have you been here the whole time…and why are you wearing pajamas?” she asked innocently.

“Yes, I have been here the whole time,” his eyes shown as he winked, “which in fact has been a very, very long time indeed.” His smile turned to a frown as if realizing something very important.  “But, to answer your second question, I like to sleep, I suppose.”  His smile returned.  “And I’ve decided that its easier to sleep with pajamas on, then pajamas off!”

“Well, that seems silly,” she replied bravely.  “You just sleep here on this cliff?  …and you can’t do very much with pajamas on all the time.  Don’t you go anywhere?”

“I’ve been everywhere, my dear child, but that was long ago, when I was very young, much like you.  But time is different now.  I am afraid a new king and queen have taken power in this land.”

“A king and queen, how grand!” she exclaimed happily.

“Oh no, my child, they are a fearful pair, bent on evil and destruction.  It was they that banished me from the land of my youth and have forced me to remain here between the cliff and the forest.”

The girl frowned.  “Evil kings and queens.  How terrible.  Why not stop sleeping and do something?  Can’t you fight them?  What can be done?”

The old man chuckled as he turned towards the cliff that descended to the great sea.  “You are so brave, my dear child, but also young.  What can be done?” he whispered.  His voice then raised like a trumpet to join the howling wind and cascaded down the expanse. “Of whom shall I speak?  What deeds could be told to bring hope to dull eyes?  What songs could be sung to quench the heart of its thirst for joy?  Gone is peace.  The wheel that moves the soul, sun, and stars is forgotten.  Lost is the song!  Lost is the song that tuned the mountains and gave rhythm to the sea.  Lost is the song that birthed beauty and guards truth.  Even worms in their earthly habitats see farther than we!  We claim a knowledge, an understanding, an enlightenment…Shadows!  Shadows and clouds, all.  Lost is the song that was sung at the foundations of the earth!”  He turned to the girl with tears in his wild, fiery eyes.  “What can be done?  The song is lost.  Is there no one who will sing?”  He slouched and grew silent.

by Matthew Whitney

Terrified by the old man’s voice and the words that he spoke, she walked up to him trembling, and held his hand in hers as she looked out to the sea.

“I will find the one who will remember the song.  There must be one who will sing this song, although I know not where they are or what the song is…

I can’t just stay here and sleep forever.  Will you come with me?  Please come with me.”

The wizened man turned.  “I cannot come with you, though I would with all my heart,” he said with a tearful eye.  “Yes, you must find the song.”

“Then I will go alone.”

The old man in the pajamas watched as the frail little girl walked towards the dark forest, away from the cliff.  A mist was gathering in the trees and as she faded into it, he called to her.  “Though you do not see me, I will be with you Carys!”

She turned quickly, surprised, and called back, “How do you know my name?”

She heard his distant voice, “I have known you from the moment of your first heartbeat…”

Then there was only dark trees, and fog.

 

Matthew Whitney’s amazing painting and other artwork can be found at http://www.matthewwhitney.com.  You can even see a painting of me at http://www.matthewwhitney.com/highres.html, and click on Blue in a Happy Way.  His style and intent has always spoken to me on a very deep and profound level.