Monday, January 09, 2012

`They Are There Again'

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

Hard-headed Yankee pragmatism. It’s the sort of thing Robert Frost might have said, and probably did, though Thoreau said it first, in his journal entry for Nov. 11, 1850, where it stands alone, a self-contained paragraph without thematic context. Annotators suggest it might refer to an 1849 dairyman's strike in parts of New England, when milk was suspected of being watered down. I file it on the common-sense shelf with Dr. Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley.
I thought of Thoreau’s one-liner when reading Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook.” The speaker prepares to drink from the stream when he sees “A startled inchling trout / Of spotted near-transparency.”  The fish flits among stones and fallen leaves. Dragonflies skim the surface. He sees reflections of clouds and birches on the water. He never takes that drink but asks: “How shall I drink all this?” and answers with the final stanza:
“Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.”
Here, Wilbur reads the poem and comments: “So many things are perceptible at once.” Creation’s supply is bottomless. The joy-minded – the attentive and grateful – are “dumbstruck” with nature’s bounty. Thoreau’s trout is the end of something; Wilbur’s, only the beginning. Late in 1816, recently turned twenty-one, Keats completed an untitled poem known by its first line, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill.” Leigh Hunt reports the poem was “suggested by a delightful summer-day, as [Keats] stood beside the gate that leads from the Battery on Hampstead Heath into a field of Caen Wood.” Keats’ celebration of nature’s profligacy reads like a young man’s word-drunk precursor to Wilbur’s poem: 
“…swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies 'gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper'd with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.”

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