11 March 2010

'Of Twilight Time'—Samuel Palmer in Word & Image

I’ve mentioned English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) here before: in this post about his painting, ‘Coming from Evening Church’, and in this one, where I used one of his engravings to illustrate Alcman of Sparta’s ‘Night’. Peter Ackroyd, in his enchanting Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (a copy of which I am currently looking to give away), tells us:

Samuel Palmer was decisively influenced by the poetry of John Milton, and with his etchings illustrated ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’; all his life he tried to re-create the ‘Valley of Vision’ [1] filled with the shadows cast by moonlight and the dark foliage of overhanging trees. [2]

This theme can obviously be seen in the painting above—Palmer’s ‘Cornfield in Moonlight’. But it seems he followed the same preoccupations in verse as well. A browse through W.H. Auden’s anthology, 19th-Century British Minor Poets, yielded the following delightful piece from Palmer:

Shoreham: Twilight Time

And now the trembling light
Glimmers behind the little hills and corn,
Ling’ring as loth to part; yet part thou must
And though than open day far pleasing more
(Ere yet the fields and pearlèd cups of flowers
Twinkle in the parting light; )
Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through [3] the rising dew;
Till all like silver bright
The faithful witness, pure and white,
Shall look o’er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe and still.
All is safe and all is still,
Save what noise the watch-dog makes
Or the shrill cock the silence breaks.
Now and then—
And now and then—
Hark! Once again,
The wether’s bell [4]
To us doth tell
Some little stirring in the fold.
Methinks the ling’ring dying ray
Of twilight time, doth seem more fair,
And lights the soul up more than day
When wide-spread sultry sunshines are:
Yet all is right and all most fair,
For thou, dear God, has formèd all;
Thou deckest every little flower,
Thou girdest every planet ball,
And mark’st when sparrows fall. [5]

What I love about Palmer, aside from the beautiful portrayal of night in word and image, is the echo of a vanished world of simple, rustic pleasures. Even if we cannot completely recreate this world for ourselves, we can become attuned to its virtues, appropriate them in perhaps a limited degree, and at the very least, remind ourselves that there is another way to live than on processed foods and video games.

[1] I’m not entirely certain what Ackroyd is alluding to here. I noticed there is a book about Blake with this title, but I can’t seem to find the phrase in any of Blake’s works. Any ideas, dear readers?

[2] Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (NY: Anchor, 2004), p. 76.

[3] Auden reads ‘lookest though the rising dew’, but after checking another text, I have emended it to the more logical ‘through’.

[4] George Creeger tells us, in a note on this line, that a ‘wether’s bell’ is ‘the bell hung round the neck of the lead sheep in a flock’ (W.H. Auden, ed., 19th-Century British Minor Poets, notes by George C. Creeger (NY: Delacorte, 1966), p. 359).

[5] Auden, p. 147.


Daniel said...

As far as I can tell it is a Frye invention, his works on Blake are verrryyy good (which I am sure you already know).


Joseph Zheng said...

As crazy as their ideas are (especially Blake), Blake and Milton went a very long way toward curing me of atheism. For all of his blatantly wrong, heretical, or dangerous ideas, I somehow feel that Blake is closer to authentic Christianity than many other Western Christian writers. I couldn't really explain why I feel that way, but it probably has something to do with his critique of "Newton's Sleep" and the mechanistic worldview that has so thoroughly pervaded modern thinking.

Matthew Baker said...

Not a Frye invention. The phrase appears in Blake's poem Jerusalem (1804), chapter 1, plate 22, line 8:

"Great is the cry of the Hounds of Nimrod along the Valley of Vision, they scent the odor of War in the Valley of Vision."

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks, Matthew! I find searching Blake's work a painstaking business, and sadly lack the endurance for it!