Poems of Mourning  by Peter Washington (ed.) – ★★★★1/2
This is an impressive collection of poems that concern loss and mourning from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. I found most of them absolutely beautiful, coming from such poets as Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti. Some of them are fairly well-known, such as Bishop’s One Art, Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Hopkins’s Spring and Fall, and Auden’s Funeral Blues, while others are more obscure, including those that commemorate animals. The other great thing about this collection is that it makes an effort to present poets from around the world, so there are poems from François Villon, Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri, Fyodor Tyutchev, Czeclaw Milosz, and Primo Levi. For similar books, see also my post The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, as well as my mini-review of Japanese Death Poems.
La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★
“Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.
I have been a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and his books for a long time (my favourite books are Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge, and in that order), but I never previously had a chance to read his poetry and finally bought a collection of his Wessex Poems. Some find Hardy’s poems in this collection too grim, but I think they are simply hauntingly beautiful. Below I share my brief review, as well as two poems from the collection.
Wessex Poems and Other Verses [1898/2017] by Thomas Hardy – ★★★★1/2
I thought this was a wonderful collection of Thomas Hardy’s poems, touching on such themes as country life and romance, human character, doomed love, relative fleetness of youth and beauty, death and attempts to reconcile the depth of love with the passing of a loved one. There were a number of “supernatural” and “otherworldly” poems in this collection too, which makes it a perfect reading for a cosy autumn evening in or nearHalloween. Melancholic, full of longing and simply beautiful, some of my favourites included Unknowing, the She, to Him series of poems and Her Immortality. Others are narratively interesting too, for example, The Dance at the Phoenix is about a woman of sixty who is swept by her memories when she hears the King’s-Own Cavalry is in town and goes dancing to unpredictable or maybe and sadly, predictable results, and in The Two Men, Hardy shows how two men are bound to meet the same destiny having the same schooling and similar inner beliefs.
In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann – ★★★★★
“I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon“ [Renseki, 1789];
“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].
Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).