Common-Place Jotting: “Planting Trees”

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

John Updike (1932-2009) still casts a long shadow on the literary landscape. His writings were varied and many, but his craftsmanship set the standard among his contemporaries. He was only one of four writers who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, he once described his subject as “the American small town, Protestant middle-class” everyman. His clarity of style and expression is the hallmark of his writing, causing a critic for The Guardian to warn, “The clarity of Updike’s poetry should not obscure its class.”

The following poem quickly became one of my favorites for its simple directness and descriptive force in conveying the grace available in the simple act of “Planting Trees.” The poem is from his fifth collection of poetry, Facing Nature.

Planting Trees                                                                 John Updike

Our last connection with the mythic.
My mother remembers the day as a girl
she jumped across a little spruce
that now overtops the sandstone house
where still she lives; her face delights
at the thought of her years translated
into wood so tall, into so mighty
a peer of the birds and the wind.

Too, the old farmer still stout of step
treads through the orchard he has outlasted
but for some hollow-trunked much-lopped
apples and Bartlett pears. The dogwood
planted to mark my birth flowers each April,
a soundless explosion. We tell its story
time after time: the drizzling day,
the fragile sapling that had to be staked.

At the back of our acre here, my wife and I,
freshly moved in, freshly together,
transplanted two hemlocks that guarded our door
gloomily, green gnomes a meter high.
One died, gray as sagebrush next spring.
The other lives on and some day will dominate
this view no longer mine, its great
lazy feathery hemlock limbs down-drooping,
its tent-shaped caverns resinous and deep.
Then may I return, an old man, a trespasser,
and remember and marvel to see
our small deed, that hurried day,
so amplified, like a story through layers of air
told over and over, spreading.

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Common-Place Jotting: Rosetti Rhymes

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

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Portrait of Christina Rosetti by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) is famous for  “Goblin Market” and “Remember” and known for her many romantic and devotional poems. “In the Bleak Midwinter” was later set to music by Gustave Holst as was Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Harold Darke.

I never knew she also wrote some children’s poetry and it was a pleasant surprise to encounter this little rhyme to teach children their colors. From The Golden Book of Poetry (1947):

Color
 
What is pink? a rose is pink
By a fountain’s brink.
What is red? a poppy’s red
In its barley bed.
What is blue? the sky is blue
Where the clouds float thro’.
What is white? a swan is white
Sailing in the light.
What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow.
What is green? the grass is green,
With small flowers between.
What is violet? clouds are violet
In the summer twilight.
What is orange? Why, an orange,
Just an orange!
 

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On a different tack: if only it made a difference to quarrelsome children to point out the bonds of family ought not be treated shabbily! It’s a wisdom they attain when they grow to maturity, as Rosetti writes in this little excerpt from “Goblin Market” on the strong bond between sisters:

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Auguste Renoir – Young Girls at the Piano (oil on canvas)

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

Common-Place Jotting: “Unto the hert’s forest”

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) died before he reached forty: a man of double lives, he was an English courtier and diplomat during the reign of Henry VIII, by whom he was imprisoned twice in the Tower of London but managed to escape execution both times. He was infamous as a rumored lover of one of the king’s many wives (Anne Boleyn) but also famous for introducing the sonnet form into English literature.

The following sonnet could be interpreted in two different ways: either the speaker must renounce his love out of fealty to his wife (Wyatt was married) or he must flee his love out of fear of the king. Either way, unattainable love is the cause of the poet’s lasting pain and his heart must go into hiding.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger

The Long Love that in my Thought doth Harbour            Sir Thomas Wyatt

The longë love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lustës negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall unto the hert’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

A Common-Place Jotting: Coleridge

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (18th c.) had a “vision in a dream,” as he called it, and immediately upon waking, he wrote down the poem Kubla Khan which he said came to him fully constructed like the dream. He kept it hidden for many years, reading it in private until, at the prompting of Lord Byron, he finally published it in 1816.

Kubla Khan became, of course, one of his most famous and memorable poems. It begins by describing the mythical kingdom of Xanadu where the most fantastic pleasures of natural beauty were enjoyed. By the end of the poem we are left with same longing for Xanadu that the poet experiences, a longing to revive within ourselves such inspiration as that of “a young Abyssinian maid” as she plays on her dulcimer:

A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

A Common-Place Jotting: The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 9

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

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Michael Radford directed The Merchant of Venice (2004), with Antonio Gil as the Prince of Arragon

In this scene from The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has the Prince of Arragon, one of Portia’s many suitors, guess which of the three caskets (gold, silver, lead) contains her portrait. Leading the prince to them, Portia says:

Behold, there stand the caskets, noble Prince.
If you choose that wherein I am contained,
Straight shall our nuptial rites be solemnized.
But if you fail, without more speech, my lord,
You must be gone from hence immediately.

After contemplating all three, the Prince of Arragon chooses the silver chest:

I will not choose what many men desire
Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes.
Why then, to thee, thou silver treasure house.
Tell me once more what title thou dost bear.
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
And well said too—for who shall go about
To cozen fortune and be honorable
Without the stamp of merit? Let none presume
To wear an undeservèd dignity.
Oh, that estates, degrees and offices
Were not derived corruptly, and that clear honor
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer!
How many then should cover that stand bare!
How many be commanded that command!
How much low peasantry would then be gleaned
From the true seed of honor! And how much honor
Picked from the chaff and ruin of the times
To be new varnished! Well, but to my choice.
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
I will assume desert.—Give me a key for this,
And instantly unlock my fortunes here.

Opening the casket, he finds not Portia’s portrait, but a picture of a fool’s head and a letter which reads:

“The fire seven times tried this,
Seven times tried that judgment is,
That did never choose amiss.
Some there be that shadows kiss.
Such have but a shadow’s bliss.
There be fools alive, iwis,
Silvered o’er—and so was this.
Take what wife you will to bed,
I will ever be your head.
So be gone. You are sped.
Still more fool I shall appear”
By the time I linger here.
With one fool’s head I came to woo,
But I go away with two.—
Sweet, adieu. I’ll keep my oath
Patiently to bear my wroth.”

— William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 9

A Common-Place Jotting: Keats

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

A sonnet by John Keats on the melancholy shortness of a day spent away from the city:

To one who has been long in city pent,
         ‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

A Common-Place Jotting: the Ancient Mariner

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, among the ghostly visitor’s words to the wedding guest, driven by the agony of guilt, a warning to his listener that all of creation deserves our praise:

One of Gustave Doré’s celebrated engravings illustrating the poem.
PHOTO: ART RESOURCE

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

lines 614-617

A Common-Place Jotting: Tintern Abbey

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” — a place to remember

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Tintern Abbey in 1794, a watercolour by J. M. W. Turner

From William Wordsworth’s  Lines Written (or Composeda Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798: this benediction of nature’s guardian light on his sister, with whom he went on a walking tour, inspiring this homage to nature:

.  .  . and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

 

A Common-Place Jotting: Macbeth Act V, Scene 3

Common-Place or “Locus Communis” a place to remember

Orson Welles directed and starred as the titular Macbeth in the 1948 film, with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.

Two moving speeches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, both in the same scene:

one a soliloquy on his own fate . . .

I have lived long enough: My way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

. . . the other lamenting a physician’s lack of cure for his wife’s guilt-worn sanity —

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

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