Eagle over the Hudson River

Eagle over the Hudson River

Sometimes in the fiercest driving storm
           of wind and rain or hail or snow
a great eagle will appear over the river
           now soaring with steady
and now thrashing wings
           always confronting the gale
or perhaps cleaving into it
           or at times literally sitting upon it

It’s like reading some first-class
           natural tragedy or epic
or hearing martial trumpets
           : the splendid bird
enjoys the hubbub
           is adjusted and equal to it
finishes it so artistically
           his pinions just oscillating
the position of head and neck
           his resistless varied flight
now a swirl
           now an upward rush
the black clouds driving
           and down below
the angry wash
           the hiss of rain
the wind’s piping
           the bird tacking or jibing

and now for a moment
           abandoning himself to the gale
racing with it at such speed
           and now resuming control
he comes up against it
           lord of the situation and the storm
lord in the midst of it
           of power and savage joy

Walt Whitman

From Specimen Days (1882), adapted by John Lyons


A hint of wild nature

A hint of wild nature

As I was crossing the Delaware to-day
           I saw a large flock of wild geese
right overhead not very high up
           ranged in V-shape
in relief against the noon clouds
           of light smoke-colour

Had a capital
           though momentary
view of them
           and then of their course
on and on southeast
           till gradually fading

Strange thoughts
           melted into me
seeing these creatures
           cleaving the sky
the spacious airy realm
           even the prevailing
smoke-gray colour everywhere
           no sun shining
the waters below
           the rapid flight of the birds
appearing just for a minute
           revealing to me such a hint
of the whole spread of Nature
           with her eternal
unsophisticated freshness
           her never-visited recesses
of sea and sky
           and shore
and then disappearing
           in the distance

Walt Whitman


Adapted by John Lyons from Specimen Days (1882)

The great unrest of which we are part

whitman house
Whitman’s birthplace

The great unrest of which we are part

My thoughts went floating
           on vast and mystic currents
as I sat today in solitude
           in the half-shade by the creek
returning mainly
           to two principal centres

One of my cherished themes
           for a never-finished poem
has been the two impetuses
           of man
and the universe
           —in the latter
creation’s incessant unrest
           exfoliation or
what Darwin termed evolution
           : indeed, what is Nature
but change in all its visible
           and still more
its invisible processes
           and what is humanity
in its faith its love
           its heroism its poetry
even in its morals
           but emotion ?

Walt Whitman

Adapted from Specimen Days (1882) by John Lyons. Happy Thanksgiving in the bicentennial of the great American poet’s birth on 31 May 1819!

Swallows on the river

specimen days

Swallows on the river

Cloudy and wet
           and wind due east
air without palpable fog
           but very heavy
with moisture
           a welcome change

           crossing the Delaware
I noticed unusual numbers
           of swallows in flight
graceful beyond description
           close to the water

Thick they flew around the bows
           of the ferry-boat
as she lay tied in her slip
           and as we went out
I watched beyond the pier-heads
           and across the broad stream
their swift-winding
           loop-ribands of motion
down close to it
           cutting and intersecting

Though I’d seen swallows
           all my life
it seemed as though
           I never before realized
their peculiar beauty and character
           in the landscape

Walt Whitman

Adapted from Specimen Days (1882) by John Lyons


Early in November

Early in November

Early in November
           the lane opens
into a broad grassy
           upland field
of over twenty acres
           slightly sloping
to the south

Here I’m accustomed to walk
           for sky views and effects
either morning or sundown
           Today from this field
my soul is calmed and expanded
           beyond description
the whole forenoon
           by the clear blue
arching over all
only sky and daylight

The autumn leaves
           the cool dry air
the faint aroma
           crows cawing
in the distance
           two great buzzards
wheeling gracefully
           and slowly far up there
the occasional murmur
           of the wind
through the trees
           sometimes quite gentle
sometimes threatening
           a gang of farm-laborers
loading cornstalks
           in a field in sight
and the patient horses

Walt Whitman

(adapted by John Lyons from November Boughs, 1888)

Autumn days

Autumn, John Lyons (oil on wood)

Autumn days

A clear crispy day
           dry and breezy air
full of oxygen
           So I go wrapt
in the beauty of things
           trees water grass
sunlight early frost
           the silver glaze
of light on the river
           colours beyond
any painting ever made

Sometimes I think
           I never saw the skies before
their still motion in the heavens
           day after day
sunrise and sunset
           so often tinged
with reds and golds

What is happiness
           if not moments like this
when I abandon myself
           to nature’s moods
the impalpable
           evanescent beauty
of the spirit in breath
           that drips endlessly
subtly through the air ?

John Lyons

Adapted from Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

Summer days and nights

whitman house
Walt Whitman’s birthplace, Huntingdon, Long Island, N.Y.

Summer days and nights

As I sit under the willow shade
           a little bird is leisurely
dousing and flirting himself amid the brook
           almost within reach of me
Evidently he has no fear of me
           and takes me for some feature
of the neighbouring bank
           of coarse bushes and wild weeds

The last three days
           have been perfect
heavy rains at night
           with thunder and lightning
But I’m writing this
           sitting by the creek
watching two kingfishers
           at their sundown sport
strong beautiful
           joyful creatures
their wings glistening
           in the slant of the sunbeams
as they circle round and round
           dipping and dashing
the surface of the water
           occasionally testing their wings
on longer stretches
           up and down the stream

Walt Whitman

(adapted from Specimen Days by John Lyons)

Walt Whitman was born in Huntington, Long Island, New York, on 31 May 1819. In honour of his bicentennial I have been working on passages of Specimen Days (1882) which, among other things, record his lyrical observations of the natural word around him. Although written in prose, many of these passages are absolutely poetic and I have tried to draw out this poetry with a little subtle editing.

Loafing in the woods

specimen days

Loafing in the woods

I write this down
           in the country again
in a new spot
           seated on a log
in the woods
           warm sunny midday

Have been loafing here
           deep among the trees
shafts of tall pines
           oak and hickory
with a thick undergrowth
           of laurels and grapevines
the ground covered by debris
           dead leaves
everything solitary
           ancient and grim

I hear the wind
           through the pine-tops
I sit and listen
           long long
to its hoarse sighing
           above the stillness
blue-birds robins
           and meadow-larks
begin to appear
           all the senses
sight sound smell
           delicately gratified

John Lyons

(adapted from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days)

St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey

Inverted matrix, JohnLyons (20 x 20 cm oil on canvas)

St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey

The poet knew
           that true love
is indissoluble
           neither can it
be faked

Wild flowers
           and vines and weeds
come up through
           the headstones
that line the boundary wall
           in the grounds
of St Mary Magdalen
           in Bermondsey Street

The names engraved
           on these sandstone markers
long gone to dust
           and dead words hang
in the silence

What of the murmur
           of dreams
what of the curious
           systole and diastole
the beating and pounding
           of blood in the veins
what of the cries
           and the laughter
the husky pantings
           of these lovers
now laid to rest ?

The poet knows
           in the senses of his body
and in every limb
           and in every breath
that love
           is the pulse of life

John Lyons

The matrix painting may be hung in any of its four orientations. See Matrix in yellow and umber

Sundown perfume

Sundown perfume

Sitting alone by the creek
           solitude here but the scene
bright and vivid enough
           the sun shining
and a fresh wind blowing
           some heavy showers last night

the grass and trees looking their best
           in the shadows and the half-shadows
and dappling glimpses of water
           through the gaps

the wild note of a quail near by
           crows cawing in the distance
a drove of young hogs
           rooting in soft ground
close to the oak
           under which I sit

And still the clear notes of the quail
           the quiver of leaf-shadows
over the paper as I write
           white clouds aloft in the sky
the sun fast declining to the west
           the swift darting of many sand-swallows
coming and going,
           their holes in a neighbouring marl-bank
the odour of the cedar oak
           so palpable as evening approaches
the bronze-and-gold of ripening wheat
           honey-scented clover-fields
the venerable old oak above me
           and still the dual notes of the quail
and the soughing of the wind
           through some nearby pines

As I rise to return home
           my ear catches a delicious song
from some bushy recess
           off there in the marsh
leisurely repeated
           over and over again
and circles of swallows
           flying in their dozens
in concentric rings
           in the last rays of sunset
like the flashes
           of some airy wheel

Adapted from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days