The Poetry of Circumstance

I spent much of yesterday truant in the Bedai Hills, my truancy partly owing to a mood resembling that of Tennyson’s prophet when he said,

I am wearied of our city, son, and I go

To spend my one last year among the hills.

I was not, I hasten to add, intending to linger in the hills for a year, or to make that year my last; but in all other salient respects, this Prophet and I were of one mind.

I set out on a misanthropic ramble, but the hills put me right.

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You won’t find these hills on a map, for Bedai Hills is a name of my own invention.  And without keen eyes, you won’t find them on the horizon, for the Bedai Hills are not easily seen.  This is not because they are imaginary hills (fond as I am of those), but because they are hills of such modest stature that no one has yet thought to name or notice them.

The Bedai Hills are subtle sandstone knolls that rise a mere fifty to one hundred feet over the circumjacent prairie, but an observant explorer will find them just east of Gibbons Creek in the county known as Grimes.  They are said to be relicts of a prehistoric river; fossilized sandbars, in fact.

The soil into which these fossilized sandbars decompose is, strange to say, a sandy soil; and one consequence of this sandy soil is that the Bedai Hills are blanketed with stands of yellow pine.  These pines are, indeed, the one way in which the hills draw attention to themselves, for they are on all sides surrounded by a contrasting savannah of post oak groves and blue stem prairie.

Now that will have to do for natural history, since my subject is the need for poetry in places and their names.

Every place should have a name, even the Bedai Hills.  I sympathize with the fictional character who said of an anonymous landscape that “nothing is more tiresome,” and I do not hesitate to go farther and agree with the traveler who wrote, “I hate an anonymous landscape” (1, 2).  I hate an anonymous landscape because there is no feeling at home in it.  Such a landscape can never be more than tenanted. And tenanting landscape is awkward and discomfiting, like sharing a terrible meal with taciturn strangers, or stretching out on a park bench to read an unannotated edition of Finnegan’s Wake.

No doubt there are people in this world who prefer to be tenants, but I’m not one of them.  I prefer to dwell in a familiar landscape, to which I have been properly introduced

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“Names, bare names, are surely more to children than we poor, grown-up, obliterated fools remember” (3).

So wrote Robert Lewis Stevenson, himself a man of keen topographic sensibility.  Well, I’m about as grown up as I’ll ever be, and I can’t disown the name of fool, but I am not yet an obliterated fool if the mark of obliteration is indifference to places and their names.

And not just any names will do, since a landscape barbarously named is (to the man of topographic sensibility) nearly as distasteful as one in which names are as rare as visions in the day when Samuel served under Eli.  By a landscape barbarously named I mean, of course, a landscape bureaucratically named: named on the advice of engineers, advertising agents, and professional educators.

“In the eighty-seven departments into which the French Republic was divided at the outbreak of the Great War there was political and administrative expediency.  In the old divisions of the land which have come down from Feudal days there are the magic of names and the romance of history and fiction” (4).

To avoid barbarous names, it seems that it is best to stick with the names of those inexpedient barbarians.

I took this name Bedai from the Indian band whose village once lay just north of these hills, but who survive today only in this name.  There is pathos in this, since a name, and land, and the names on the land, properly pass from fathers to sons.  Indeed, these legacies are the essence of patrimony.  And in this patrimony, it is the names on the land that that make it fatherland.

Without such names, it is nothing but real estate.

The difference between fatherland and real estate is what Stevenson called “the poetry of circumstance.”  It is the difference between tenancy and possession.  In the words of another novelist, poetry of circumstance is found only in a land “freighted with the magic of names and place associations and those things with which the life and language of a race are bound up.”  It is this that makes land into fatherland, a romance that “is half the divulging of the soul of places, half immemorial tradition” (5).

Where there is no poetry of circumstance, a country is nothing but real estate tenanted by obliterated fools.  Where there is no poetry of circumstance, a country is nothing but a discomfiting weariness to Tennyson’s prophet and I.

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(1) Prosper Mérimée, “Colomba,” in Works (1905)

(2) Max O’Rell, A Frenchman in America (1891)

(3) Robert Lewis Stevenson, Memories and Portraits (1887)

(4) Arthur Bartlett Maurice, The Paris of the Novelists (1919)

(5) Ernest Rhys, Romance (1913)

9 thoughts on “The Poetry of Circumstance

  1. Pingback: The Poetry of Circumstance | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Poetry of Circumstance | Reaction Times

  3. I spent my sixth-grade year in the San Fernando Valley, in a non-place laughably named Granada Hills, which bordered another non-place equally laughably named Balboa Park. The most meaningful name of the many non-places in the San Fernando Valley is Tarzana, where the tract houses were built, beginning in the 1940s, on the subdivided acres of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sprawling ranch. I attended the seventh through the twelfth grades while living with my family on Point Dume in Malibu, named allegedly after a Father Dumetz, who traveled in Southern California on a mission to the Chumash and Tongva tribes. The Topnymics of Malibu, beginning with the word Malibu (“The Surf Sounds Loudly”), is richer and more meaningful by far than the toponymics of the San Fernando Valley. Many of the places retain their indigenous names, while others retain the Spanish names endowed on them by the Colonial regime, and these in turn often “translate” an indigenous name. I spent a good deal of time and sweat hiking in the coastal canyons — most particularly in Solstice Canyon, whose name suggests a pre-Christian ceremony. These places are now atrociously overbuilt and inaccessible to young adventurers. They are criss-crossed by newly built roads with wholly inappropriate names made up by real estate developers.

  4. Someday I’d like to write a modern paraphrase of Vasco de Lobeira’s History of Amalis de Gaule. Perhaps it’s already been done, but I’ve not seen it if so. That tale of the “the strange island of Californos . . .where gold and precious stones do grow in abundance” eerily presages so much in its namesake. It’s an almost prefect example of what my previous post called “a fit and fatal name.”

    • I wanted indeed to comment on that post, but comments were not activated, as it seemed. I wanted to write about how a fit name had unfitted itself over time; or rather how a place might unfit itself from its name. The original name of the megalopolis where I grew up (or in and around which I grew up) was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula (“The Community” — literally “the People” — “of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Small Portion.”) That was a fit name for a Christian mission to the local tribes. The odd element of the long name, the concluding Porciúncula or “Small Portion,” can refer either to the humble notion that if what falls to one is sufficient, he must not covet what falls to someone else; or to what elsewhere people call “the widow’s mite,” as much charity as one give, even he is poor. A fit name, as I say. How obviously the place has unfitted itself to the name. There is nowadays nothing small, humble, or charitable about Los Angeles. Alas!

  5. J. M. Smith and Dr. Bertonneau, thanks for writing about these places. That’s more refreshing than critiquing the typical liberal ideology of “globalism,” though that critiquing too should be done.

    I reflect on how place + book may work together in the formation of a poetic consciousness. This isn’t simply a matter of memory but of alertness to places where one is now. I’m not a poet, but if I were this would be part of my poetic labor.

    Is “globalist” poetry an oxymoron?

    • Dale — the two great documents of the emergence of Self from Place are William Wordsworth’s Prelude and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. They are cases of complementarity by contrast: The Prelude largely concerns Wordsworth’s boyhood in the Lake District and his adolescent Wanderjahre in France and Switzerland; Paterson concerns the poet’s mature self-awareness as something profoundly inveigled by the history of his native city. Both of these epic-length poems are accessible through the Internet. If you were feeling ambitious, I would recommend Frederick Turner’s Genesis, which I might describe as the marvelously plausible story of the emergence of a truly Martian consciousness through the human adventure of terraforming that planet to make it livable.

      • Thank you, Dr. Bertonneau. In fact I just reread the 1805 Prelude and read the 1850 Prelude a few months ago. In the present connection one might revisit the paragraph in Book Three that begins “A track pursuing.” Happy the student whose teacher reads and unpacks these lines with sympathy and understanding.

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