At the source of the longest river / The voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / between two waves of the sea.
TS ELIOT Four Quartets: Little Gidding

Hi! My name is Robert, aka The Solitary Walker, former editor of The Passionate Transitory, and this is
The Hidden Waterfall, my new site devoted to poetry discussion. We choose poems, we read them, we think about them, we discuss them. If you want to take part, please use the relevant comment box; all serious contributions are eagerly received. The lit-ernet is full of cursory summaries and shallow shorthand — so let's develop a deeper, more questioning, more intellectually satisfying approach to poetry appreciation. I'm thinking it would be good to feature rather-less-well-known 'difficult' poems, rather than popular 'easy' ones, but any ideas and suggestions about content are welcome. There is no pressure to join in, no time limit for responses. Whether you wish to contribute, or just read along, or aren't interested at all, that's fine. Participation should be for the fun of it, and out of a love of poetry and its greater understanding. I'll probably be posting a fresh poem every couple of weeks or so, but there are no hard and fast rules on this exploratory site. A little background reading about each poet and his/her life and work may be useful.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

3. 'In Praise Of Limestone' by WH Auden

'In Praise of Limestone' ends our brief time with Auden, though I think I will return to this challenging, most individual writer. What an extraordinary poem it is — subtle and complex, oblique and ambiguous, fond and humorous, deep and light and serious as ever. Annoying, if you will, because of this. Yet, in its style and diction, clear-minded, clear-headed, clearly expressed. And full of memorable lines and phrases.

A word about context: it was Auden's first visit to Italy with his lifelong friend and sometime lover, Chester Kallman. This was the first poem Auden wrote in Italy. Limestone landscape was a beloved and symbolic landscape of Auden's, an integral geology of his native Yorkshire. Limestone is also a major part of the Mediterranean landscape. It is a soft, porous, sedimentary rock, fluidly forming underground streams and lakes, caves and caverns. 'Gennel' is a Yorkshire dialect word for a narrow alleyway between houses.

But what on earth is this poem all about? I have lots of ideas, but I hope these may emerge in a general discussion about the poem with some of you.

A few of those great lines and phrases:

 . . . Mark these rounded slopes 
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, 
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs 
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle, 
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving 
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain 
The butterfly and the lizard . . .

Their eyes have never looked into infinite space 
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb . . .

'I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing; 
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; 
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.' 

. . . but when I try to imagine a faultless love 
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur 
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

2. 'Woods' by WH Auden

Here's another poem by Auden for comment and discussion. 'Woods' is the second poem in a series called 'Bucolics', which was published in 1952-53. The other poems in the sequence are similarly elemental and topographical: 'Winds', 'Mountains', 'Lakes', 'Islands', 'Plains', 'Streams'. Caedmon recorded Auden reading these poems in 1953; you can trace some of these recordings on the internet. In the liner notes Auden describes the common theme of these poems as 'the relation of man as a history-making person to nature'.

Compared with 'Consider This and in Our Time', the first thing you notice about this poem is that it's written in traditional iambic pentameter form — perhaps as a gesture to English culture before its decline or perhaps as mocking irony?

A few words of explanation: in the first stanza Piero di Cosimo's 'primal woods' refers to his painting 'Forest Fire' in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. In the sixth stanza 'Pan's green father' who 'raps out / A burst of indecipherable Morse' refers to a woodpecker.

This poem seems to me to be a concise poetic history (anthropological, social, political, cultural, spiritual and mythological) of the English (British) forest (and, by analogy, English culture): from savage to sylvan to well-kempt — to coarsened, depleted and degraded. Forests used to cover Britain; now there are only patches left. This theme of woodland (and cultural) destruction has, of course, increasing global resonance. I think the general direction of the poem is clear, but, as often with Auden, there are frequent obscurities: who are 'those vast lives that never took another / And are not scared of gods, ghosts, or stepmother'? (Stanza 4.) Why does the philologist feel at home in the forest's shade? (Stanza 5.) What is 'the water noise'? (Stanza 7.)

I love the lines 'The trees encountered on a country stroll / Reveal a lot about a country's soul' (Stanza 8.); and the very last line of the poem, 'A culture is no better than its woods', has the force of an undeniable truth.

What do you think about this poem?