Morning is grim but coffee and a few good bloggers ease the transition back to humanity. On Wednesday, Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posted a lovely poem by Ivor Gurney, “Common Things,” and still-life paintings on related themes by two 19th-century American realists – Claude Raguet Hirst and William Michael Harnett. Mike uses the first line of Gurney’s poem as his title -- “The Dearness of Common Things” – which distils a sense I’ve had since childhood that certain objects, through long acquaintance, take on an aura of benevolence. Something of us rubs off on them. As a boy I was an animist, convinced my toys, especially toy soldiers, came to life in my absence. As father of three sons, I know my fantasy was not unique. More recently, I’ve had similar thought about books, that they grow promiscuous when I’m out of the room, accounting for my burgeoning dearth of shelf space.
In Hirst’s painting, “Companions,” we see a pile of four volumes, a pipe, a tobacco sack, a glass holding five stick matches and a vase with a recumbent stag on the lid. I’m not a smoker (neither is Gilleland) and I’m not fond of bric-a-brac. Nevertheless, the painting suggests home, leisure and comfort, as well as an appealingly old-fashioned sense of masculinity. This feels like a portrait by way of a still life. Hirst, by the way, despite the first name, was a woman. In one of his posthumously published lectures on education, Emerson wrote:
“We learn nothing rightly until we learn the symbolical character of life. Day creeps after day, each full of facts, dull, strange, despised things, that we cannot enough despise--call heavy, prosaic, and desert. The time we seek to kill: the attention it is elegant to divert from things around us. And presently the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts -- then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds; that a fact is an Epiphany of God.”
For “facts,” substitute objects, and we hear a theme common to Whitman, Rilke, Francis Ponge and the Polish masters, Herbert and Milosz – the warm, pulsing life of the inanimate. The daily, taken-for-granted thing – the lamp, the coffee cup, the book – is always more than functional and inert in its human setting. In Painting and Reality, Étienne Gilson writes:
“Whether its origin be Dutch or French [or, presumably, American], the things that a still life represents exercise only one single act, but it is the simplest and most primitive of all acts, namely, to be….Always present to that which is, this act of being usually lies hidden, and unrevealed, behind what the thing signifies, says, does, or makes. Only two men reach an awareness of its mysterious presence: the philosopher, if, raising his speculation up to the metaphysical notion of being, he finally arrives at this most secret and most fecund of all acts; and the creator of plastic forms, if purifying the work of his hands from all that is not the immediate self-revelation of the act of being, he provides us with a visible image of it that corresponds, in the order of sensible appearances, to what its intuition is in the mind of the metaphysician.”
Gilson specifies the plastic arts, though on occasion we see it in language, particularly poetry, words at their most precise and conscise. Singling out objects, as Gurney does – “Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves” – illuminates them as though from within. Their being shines on us. Gurney’s poem assumes the permeability of the human and inanimate. In a comic key, they resemble the bicycles and their riders in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
Miller Williams wrote a sonnet, “Things,” about his visit to the house of John Ciardi, after the poet and Dante translator’s death in 1986:
“The day we went to visit the house of the poet
I sat in the chair he sat in when he died
to look at the last things he looked at:
the cribbage board; the blue wall; the clock,
the slow brass pendulum; the deck of cards;
the small Picasso, slapdash black on white,
almost oriental, one foot by two;
the black round telephone with the circular dial;
the rug with wine roses; books on the floor.
I sat until the pendulum took my attention
to feel what he might have felt, sitting there.
“For nothing, of course, for all my foolishness.
The dying gave the room its brown meaning.
When he sat down, the chair was just a chair.”
Even in death, traces remain, if only we have the corresponding sense to know them. “Brown meaning” is suggestive, and not just because of the palette of Hirst’s painting. The wall, Williams specifies, is blue, and the Picasso is black on white. The human is brown, of the earth, wood, coffee, grain and warm Dutch interiors.