Thursday, 11 February 2016

Defining the human experience

Poets often have our human life more precisely measured than any scientist. Insights offered by Mankind's greatest poems often precede scientific validation by hundreds or thousands of years.

This is Poem XXXII from A.E. Housman's cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I. 
Now - for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart -
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart. 
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
Long before Joni Mitchell sang that we are "stardust/Billion year-old carbon", Housman intuitively felt that the matter of which we are composed comes together to form us - and then disperses. He notes that life is but a brief moment in time; our priorities are to communicate sincerely with one another - and to help one another, before the time passes. But the last verse suggests rebirth, constant rebirth.

Housman, being a classical scholar (he taught Enoch Powell at Oxford), refers to the 'twelve-winded sky', the 'wind's twelve quarters', as used in antiquity, rather than the eight/16/32 wind directions that have evolved since the Middle Ages. His references to 'the Roman' in Poem XXXI, On Wenlock Edge suggest that Housman felt a strong familiarity with those times. He has seen before. And is certain that he will do so until Eternity.

Six of the poems from A Shropshire Lad were set to music in 1909 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, my favourite British composer. On Wenlock Edge and From Far, from Eve and Morning are the first two songs from this YouTube clip (click below).

By way of coincidence, this is a quote from Warsaw-born Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, featured this very morning as Quote of the Day on the Moscow Times' Twitter feed:
All was before
All will be repeated again,
And only the moment of recognition
Brings us delight.
Yes. That 'moment of recognition'. So perfectly, succinctly put.

Written on this very day that Mankind first announced the first detection of gravitational waves.

Tomorrow: spiritual or physical? Transmission of consciousness.

This time two years ago:
The City of Warsaw wants you to complain

This time three years ago:
Czachówek's wild woods in winter

This time four years ago:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time six year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter

This time eight years ago:
A week into Lent


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the word 'intuitive' glosses over Charles's
Lyell and Darwin's contributions to the understanding of Geological 'deep' time.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Marek

You may have something there - Housman was not by any means a conventional Victorian. His poetry lacked the moral redemption expected by Christianity at the time. However, I don't know how steeped he was in scientific discoveries, as he was principally a Classicist by inclination.