Thursday, January 19, 2017


Given the mystery of our own souls, we ought to be respectful of the souls of the strangers who share our time on earth.  Hence, a poet takes a risk when he or she presents us with a portrait of one of those strangers.  The dangers of presumption, condescension, oversimplification, and caricature are obvious.  Yet, if done with sensitivity and empathy, such portraits can tell us something about our own soul and the souls of our fellows, all wandering and unknowable, all with much in common.

               Tinker's Wife

I saw her amid the dunghill debris
Looking for things
Such as an old pair of shoes or gaiters.
She was a young woman,
A tinker's wife.
Her face had streaks of care
Like wires across it,
But she was supple
As a young goat
On a windy hill.

She searched on the dunghill debris,
Tripping gingerly
Over tin canisters
And sharp-broken
Dinner plates.

Patrick Kavanagh, Ploughman and Other Poems (Macmillan 1936).

In "Tinker's Wife," Kavanagh tells us what he has seen.  Some of us will find the poem to be sensitive and empathetic.  I do.  Others, particularly thoroughly ironic moderns, may feel that Kavanagh has moved past empathy into pity, and past sensitivity into sentimentality.  This is of no moment to me, for I have no objection to either pity or sentimentality, if they are grounded in a feeling of kinship with the souls in whose company we are passing through life.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

The utopian, inhuman worlds of politics and social science are concerned with groups and categories, not with individual human beings.  Thus, many of those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election have reacted in a way that reveals a great deal (none of it good) about how they view their fellow human beings: they see caricatures and stereotypes, not individual souls.  What the unhappy fail to realize is that, by objectifying others, they are at the same time objectifying themselves, and have in turn transformed themselves into caricatures and stereotypes.  This is what happens when one becomes politicized.

Good poets and artists, on the other hand, are concerned with individual human souls.  Which is not to say that they are saviors or saints.  Nor are they out to edify us.  Rather, they simply ask us to look at the beautiful particulars of the World.  Those particulars may at times cause us to catch our breath in sadness and, yes, in pity.  But this is life, not theory.

                               A Stranger

Her face was like sad things: was like the lights
Of a great city, seen from far off fields,
Or seen from sea: sad things, as are the fires
Lit in a land of furnaces by night:
Sad things, as are the reaches of a stream
Flowing beneath a golden moon alone.
And her clear voice, full of remembrances,
Came like faint music down the distant air.
As though she had a spirit of dead joy
About her, looked the sorrow of her ways:
If light there be, the dark hills are to climb
First: and if calm, far over the long sea.
Fallen from all the world apart she seemed,
Into a silence and a memory.
What had the thin hands done, that now they strained
Together in such passion?  And those eyes,
What saw they long ago, that now they dreamed
Along the busy streets, blind but to dreams?
Her white lips mocked the world, and all therein:
She had known more than this; she wanted not
This, who had known the past so great a thing.
Moving about our ways, herself she moved
In things done, years remembered, places gone.
Lonely, amid the living crowds, as dead,
She walked with wonderful and sad regard:
With us, her passing image: but herself
Far over the dark hills and the long sea.

Lionel Johnson, Ireland, with Other Poems (Elkin Mathews 1897).

Gilbert Spencer
"The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (1952)

I am fond of robins.  I grow even fonder of them in winter, when they gather together in flocks.  I was delighted this past week when, on a sunny afternoon, I saw a large group of them (50 or so) spread out over a newly-mown meadow.  They were a companionable lot, chirping and clucking their leisurely way across the green field in the golden light.  A few sparrows had worked their way into the strolling congregation.  The robins had no objection.

I was once again reminded:  we never know what the World will bestow upon us.  With that in mind, we should be attentive, receptive, and -- above all -- grateful for the abiding mystery of it all.


Deaf and dumb lovers in a misty dawn
On an open station platform in the Dordogne
Watched each other's hands and faces,
Making shapes with their fingers, tapping their palms
Then stopped and smiled and threw themselves
Open-mouthed into each other's arms

While the rest of us waited, standing beside our cases.
When it arrived she left him and climbed on the train
Her face like dawn because of their conversation.
She suddenly turned, grabbed his neck in the crook of her arm,
Gave him the bones of her head, the bones of her body, violently,
Then climbed on again alone.  Her face hardened
In seconds as the train moved away from her island.
Tight lipped she looked around for a seat on the sea.

P. J. Kavanagh, Edward Thomas in Heaven (Chatto & Windus 1974).

Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

At the beginning of 1694, the final year of his life, Bashō was living in Tokyo (then known as Edo).  His health was poor.  In April of the previous year, his beloved nephew Tōin, who Bashō had taken into his home and cared for, had died of tuberculosis.  In the same year, he had "begun to look after a woman named Jutei and her three children, although, except for one of the children, they lived separately from him.  Surviving records are vague on Jutei's identity, but they suggest Bashō had had some kind of close relationship with her in his young days.  Her children, however, do not seem to have been fathered by Bashō."  Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 348.

Sensing that his death was approaching, on June 3, 1694, Bashō set off on a journey to Ueno (his hometown), which is located approximately 350 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.  He intended to see his relatives and friends for the last time.  He arrived on June 20.  Late in July, while still in Ueno, he learned that Jutei had died suddenly in Tokyo.  Bashō never returned to Tokyo.  He died in Osaka on November 28.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 393.

The Japanese word for "festival of the souls" is tamamatsuri. "Tamamatsuri, more commonly known as urabon (the bon festival), is an annual Buddhist rite at which each family offers prayers to the souls of its ancestors.  In Bashō's time it was held for four days, beginning on the thirteenth of the lunar seventh month.  In 1694, that day was September 2." Ibid, page 393.

What a beautiful thing Bashō has given us.  I hesitate to say anything more, but these lines just came to mind:

There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen," Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Another Time

I have spent a fair portion of the new year in the 17th century.  My sojourn began when I returned to one of my favorite anthologies:  Norman Ault's Seventeenth Century Lyrics.  Browsing through it, I came upon this:

                  The Retreat

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A sev'ral sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
          Oh, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train;
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees;
But ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move;
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane Second Edition, 1950); originally published in Silex Scintillans, Part I (1650).

"Sev'ral" (line 18) means "individual," "different," or "separate and distinct."  Robert Herrick uses the word in this sense in his lovely two-line poem "Dreams":  "Here we are all, by day; by night we're hurl'd/By dreams, each one, into a sev'ral world."  "Stay" (line 27) means "delay" in this context.

"Bright shoots of everlastingness" is wonderful, and is not likely to be forgotten once encountered.  "A white, celestial thought" is lovely.  But I am also fond of:  "Some men a forward motion love,/But I by backward steps would move."  Wise counsel, I think.

Not surprisingly, "The Retreat" puts many in mind of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  For a time (particularly in the 19th century), it was believed that Wordsworth had been directly influenced by "The Retreat," as well as by other poems by Vaughan with a similar theme.  However, this conclusion is questionable. Still, even though there may not be a direct influence at work, the similarity of feeling and thought in the two poets is at times remarkable.  (For an interesting discussion of this topic, please see Helen McMaster, "Vaughan and Wordsworth," The Review of English Studies, Volume 11, Number 43 (1935), pages 313-325.)

Roland Pitchforth (1895-1982), "Bainbridge" (1928)

After reading "The Retreat," the following poem by Thomas Traherne, another 17th century poet, came to mind.  It has appeared here before, but it is always worth a revisit.

                       The Salutation

                    These little limbs,
          These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
          Where have ye been?  Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

                    When silent I
          So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
          How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

                    I that so long
          Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
          To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.

                    New burnished joys
          Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
          In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organizëd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.

                    From dust I rise,
          And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
          A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.

                    A stranger here
          Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
          Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).

In contrast with Vaughan's backward-glancing soul, Traherne's blithe soul is content -- nay, delighted -- to be abroad in the World.  But then, Traherne is writing from the perspective of childhood, in the absence of experience.  Traherne's use of "strange" (as well as of "stranger" and "strangest") in the final stanza is lovely.  I am reminded of Vaughan's quotation, in one of his prose works (a translation of Johannes Nierembergius), of an unnamed "divine":  "Excellent is that advice of the divine:  To live a stranger unto life."  Henry Vaughan, Flores Solitudinis (1654).

Reading "The Salutation" and "The Retreat," I am compelled to report, dear readers, that the 17th century is a nobler, more gracious and graceful, and altogether more civilized place than the world we inhabit today.  Yes, I know:  those moderns who believe in the gods of Progress, Science, and political and social utopianism will howl in disagreement.  They will say: "For  centuries, humanity has been ridding itself of its ignorant and superstitious ways.  We in the modern world have arrived at the apex of human progress and enlightenment."  Well, no.

Roland Pitchforth, "Hebden, Yorkshire"

At this point, with the soul's wayfaring under consideration, I can hear two of my beloved poets of the fin de siècle calling to me.  Hence, please bear with me as we spend a brief idyll (a wistful and melancholic idyll, I concede) in the 1890s.

                    The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
     A mist behind it and a mist before.
     It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
     It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
     It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
     It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
          Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
     Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
          It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (Macmillan 1889).

Yes, the poets of the Nineties had a different view of things than Vaughan, Traherne, and the other poets of the 17th century.  Although melancholy is not absent from 17th century poetry, the fin de siècle poets made an art of evoking and cataloguing it.  As I have stated here on more than one occasion, I am not ashamed to say that I am quite willing to surrender myself to them.

            Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                    vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The title of the poem is taken from Book I, Ode 1, of Horace's Odes.  It may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by  R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  

The correspondences between the two poems are wonderful.  Ah, the fate of the soul!  In Symons's view, "there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before," and, in time, "naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,/It staggers out into eternity."  ("Into the darker mist," mind you.)  Dowson takes (perhaps) a marginally more hopeful view of the soul's journey:  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

But, for all of the differences between Symons and Vaughan, Dowson and Traherne, we mustn't forget this:  for each of them the soul is real, and we owe it our attention.

Roland Pitchforth, "Burnsall" (1925)

In our time, the word "soul" is viewed in much the same way as the word "evil":  both words make most moderns nervous.  Not me.  This is one of the reasons why the 17th century seems congenial to me, as does the fin de siècle world of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  Vaughan, Traherne, Symons, and Dowson can speak of the soul without doubt and without irony.  Why should it be otherwise?

There was a time when a person could as a matter of course address his or her own soul.  This was not necessarily a product of religious fervor, nor was it a sign of madness.  It was simply the way of the world.

For instance, the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) did so in what is purported to be his death-bed poem, which begins with the phrase animula vagula blandula.  John Donne, another poet of the 17th century, translated the opening two lines of Hadrian's poem as follows:

My little wandering sportful soul,
Guest and companion of my body.

John Donne, in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Poems of John Donne (Lawrence and Bullen 1896).

Henry Vaughan translated the entire poem:

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The guest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor jests wilt thou afford me more.

Henry Vaughan, The Mount of Olives: Or, Solitary Devotions (1652).

We live in an age of technological miracles.  But a great deal of what it means to be human has gone missing.

Roland Pitchforth, "Cottage, Bainbridge" (1928)

Sunday, January 1, 2017


One sunny afternoon this past summer, as I walked beneath a big-leaf maple, I was struck by the thought that we live in a World in which everything is in motion.  The thought was prompted by the sight of the leaves of the tree moving in the breeze.  Not the swaying of the boughs, not the rustling of sprays of leaves.  What I saw -- for only an instant -- was each of the thousands of leaves fluttering in the wind.

What took me aback was a sudden recognition that each of the leaves was unique and uniquely alive.  It is easy to say:  The leaves fluttered.  But such a statement omits a great deal.

     The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
     Ruffles the water.

Sora (1648-1710) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 223.

Stars and leaves.  Ever in motion.  Uncountable.  But each one sovereign and irreplaceable.

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

One thing always leads to another in the World in which we live.  From leaves to stars to winter showers to the ruffling water of a pond to . . .


Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

The Chinese character for "heart" is xin.  The same character is used in the Japanese language, and is known as kokoro.  As I have noted here in the past, the character is a wonderful one:  in both Chinese and Japanese it can mean "heart," but it can also mean "mind."  It can also carry connotations of "spirit," "soul," or "core."  (For an interesting discussion of the various manifestations of xin in the Chinese language and in the culture of China, please see Jing Li, Christer Ericsson, and Mikael Quennerstedt, "The Meaning of the Chinese Cultural Keyword Xin," Journal of Languages and Culture, Volume 4, Number 5 (2013).)

In Jaccottet's poem, it is "the heart" that "flies from tree to bird,/from bird to distant star,/from star to love."  This is a lovely thought.  But it becomes even lovelier when one thinks of xin and kokoro:  it is an indivisible compound of heart, soul, spirit, and mind that flies from leaf to star to bird to . . .

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

The motion of the World is a motion of imminence, immanence, and emanation.  It is a motion of the present moment.  It has nothing to do with change or transformation.  Our human mortality does not enter into it.  In fact, human beings do not enter into it.  We are ever prone to analyze, categorize, and explain the World in terms of ourselves.  But the World can get along quite well without us, thank you.

   The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician

It comes about that the drifting of these curtains
Is full of long motions; as the ponderous
Deflations of distance; or as clouds
Inseparable from their afternoons;
Or the changing of light, the dropping
Of the silence, wide sleep and solitude
Of night, in which all motion
Is beyond us, as the firmament,
Up-rising and down-falling, bares
The last largeness, bold to see.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

Of course, we humans are here.  I do not deny that.  But our first duty to the World is to leave well enough alone.

The World is aquiver.  This is what I belatedly discovered on that summer afternoon when, in my usual slow-witted fashion, I at long last noticed the singularity of each leaf's movement in the wind.

     The Place of the Solitaires

Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;
And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Wallace Stevens, Ibid.

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

I do not make New Year's resolutions.  Instead, on New Year's Eve I have gotten in the habit of reading the following two haiku.

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 202.  In Japan, the bells of Buddhist temples are rung 108 times at the turning of the year as a reminder of the 108 sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.

     Journeying through the world,--
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 290.

A small field, yes, but inexhaustible.  More than enough beauty for one lifetime.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I often walk past a small meadow of wild grasses that ends in a forest of evergreens and deciduous trees.  At this time of year, it is a tawny, brown, and russet world, save for the dark green pines and cedars in the distance, rising above the bare branches of the other trees.

On a grey and windless day, the meadow appears to be lifeless.  Everything has come to an end.  Or so it would seem.  One afternoon this past week I stood beside the still and silent grasses, beneath a dull sky, and entertained just such thoughts.  Then, suddenly, I realized how wrong I was:  I felt all at once the vitality that emanated from the meadow, and from everything around me.

Yet, we must give the seasons, and the feelings they evoke in us, their due. The late autumn emotions that I felt on the edge of the meadow are to be expected.  "The question that he frames in all but words/Is what to make of a diminished thing."  (Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird.")  Diminished, yes, but not dead.

                                A Dirge

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo's calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
          For their far off flying
          From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples' dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
          And all winds go sighing
          For sweet things dying.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).

Herbert Hughes-Stanton (1870-1937), "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

I am not given to imagining that the beautiful particulars of the World are whispering in my ear.  Still, the seemingly lifeless end-of-autumn meadow that I stood beside was neither reticent nor impassive.  They did not occur to me at the time, but two thoughts now come to mind.  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  "The infinite is the breath that animates us."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 37.)

And there is this:  "Days are where we live."  (Philip Larkin, "Days.") Seasons are where we live as well.  No wonder that each of us is likely to have a particular season (or a short passage within a season) that quickens our senses and our emotions.

But it is difficult to choose, isn't it?  I have observed here in the past that I would be willing to spend eternity lying on the grass beneath a tree in midsummer, looking up at the ever-changing kaleidoscope of blue, green, and yellow overhead, listening to the never-ending rustling of leaves.  But I can also imagine spending a perfectly acceptable eternity lying beneath the same tree in spring, autumn, or winter.

Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees,
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 40.

Watson appends this note to the poem:

"Kisaragi is the Japanese name for the second month of the lunar year. Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have died on the fifteenth day of the second month.  Saigyō fulfilled the wish expressed in his poem in a striking manner by dying on the sixteenth day of the second month of 1190, a feat that greatly impressed the people of his time, who were familiar with this poem."

Burton Watson, Ibid, page 40.

Here is an alternative translation of the poem:

This is what I want:
to die in the springtime,
beneath the blossoms --
midway through the Second Month,
when the moon is at the full.

Saigyō (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 165.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys" (1907)

I am an extremely slow learner.  Thus, as I begin my daily afternoon walk, I often caution myself:  "Look, but don't look for anything."  This is a corollary to another important principle:  "Don't think."  (As I have stated here on more than one occasion:  thinking is highly overrated.)  Of course, I invariably fail to heed both of these internal admonitions.

We require only two things as we set off into the World:  receptivity and gratitude.  We are reminded of this on a daily basis by the seasons, whose losses are always accompanied by compensations.  Each year I am saddened as the last of the leaves disappear from the trees in autumn.  But, when I see the bare branches against the winter sky, I realize that I have lost nothing.


We carved our names
in a courtyard near the river

when you were the youngest
of all our guests.

But you will never see
bright spring again,

or the beautiful apricot
blossoms that flutter past

the open temple door.

Chang Chi (768-830) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 177.

Losses and compensations.  Do they balance each other out?

              In Obitum M S, X° Maij, 1614

May!  Be thou never grac'd with birds that sing,
                    Nor Flora's pride!
In thee all flowers and roses spring,
                    Mine only died.

William Browne of Tavistock (c. 1591-c. 1645), in Gordon Goodwin (editor), The Poems of William Browne of Tavistock, Volume II (Lawrence & Bullen 1894), page 289.

I am not in a position to second-guess William Browne's grief at his loss. But I do think of compensations.  "The beautiful apricot blossoms that flutter past the open temple door."

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Mons" (1918)

In early June of 1801, Kobayashi Issa returned to his birthplace, the mountain village of Kashiwabara (in modern-day Nagano Prefecture), to care for his ailing father, who died less than a month later.  During this time, Issa maintained a journal, to which he gave the title Chichi no Shūen Nikki ("Journal of My Father's Last Days").  He gives this account of his father's death on a July morning:

"The night moved brightly into dawn, and about six o'clock, as though he had fallen into a deep sleep, Father breathed his last.

"I took hold of his empty, pitiful body.  Would that this was all a dream from which I might soon awake!  But dream or reality, I felt as though I was wandering in darkness without a lamp, on this cold dawn in this fleeting world.

"The impermanent spring flowers are seduced and scattered by the wind; this ignorant world's autumn moon is surrounded and hidden by clouds. The world knows -- need I repeat it? --, 'That which lives must perish; that which is joined together will certainly fall apart.'  And although this is the road that all must travel eventually, I was foolish enough not to believe that my own father could go as soon as yesterday or today."

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), in Robert Huey, "Journal of My Father's Last Days: Issa's Chichi no Shūen Nikki," Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 39, Number 1 (Spring 1984), pages 49-50.

Issa concludes the journal with this haiku:

If Father were here,
We'd be looking out at dawn
Across these wide green hills.

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), Ibid, page 54.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Welsh Hills near Barmouth" (1918)

Friday, December 9, 2016


The sight of a solitary bird crossing the sky is a common occurrence in Chinese poetry.  These lone birds are seldom the main subject of the poem. Rather, they pass through in a single line of verse:  a few brushstrokes in a larger landscape.

     Lu-lung Village, Autumn

Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.

Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.

A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.

You want to know my name?
A hill.  A tree.  An empty drifting boat.

Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 212.

One of the distinctive (and beautiful) features of Chinese poetry, particularly poems in the chüeh-chü (quatrain) form and in the lü-shih (eight-line, regulated verse) form, is its immediacy:  we share a moment in time with the poet.  The World unfolds in the present tense.  But this immediacy mustn't be mistaken for extemporaneous artlessness:  the prosodic elements of Chinese poetry are strict and demanding.

Thus, the lü-shih form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines), and (4) verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets of the poem.  The chüeh-chü form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, and (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second and fourth lines).  The rules of tonal parallelism may be generally described as follows:

"In principal they decree that a single line shall not have more than two, or at the very most three, syllables or words in succession that belong to the same tonal category, and that in the second line of a couplet the words in key positions shall be opposite in tone to the corresponding words in the first line of the couplet.  This latter results in the second line of the couplet producing, in terms of tone, a mirror image of the first line."

Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 10.

These formal characteristics cannot be replicated in English translations. This is not to say that good translations cannot capture the spirit of the originals.  Accomplished translators (for instance, Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, and Sam Hamill) have produced lovely versions of Chinese poems. But it is important to bear in mind that the apparent spontaneity of the poems is the product of great artistic effort.

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

The immediacy of traditional Chinese poetry causes the thousand or so years that separate us from the poets to instantly vanish.  My own experience confirms this marvelous timelessness:  the following poem by Tu Fu was written more than twelve centuries ago, but I see essentially the same scene each autumn when, in the early evening, I look across the waters of Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains rising in the west.

             Watching the Distances

I watch the limitless distance of autumn,
the far-off dark rising up in layers

where icy waters merge with the frozen sky
and the city is blurred with mist.

Last leaves are torn into flight by winds,
and sunless, distant peaks fade fast.

A lone crane flops home at dusk.
The trees are full of crows.

Tu Fu (712-770) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 140.

A single difference distinguishes Tu Fu's 8th century China from 21st century Seattle:  Tu Fu sees a lone crane flying home at dusk; I see a lone great blue heron flying at dusk towards its nest high in a cedar.  And, yes, there are often crows in the trees.

"He who sees things present, has seen all things which either have been from eternity, or shall be to eternity; for all are of the like nature, and similar."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI, Section 37, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Here is a lovely alternative translation of the same passage:

"He that has taken a view of the present age, has seen as much as if he had began with the World, and gone to the end on't; for all things are of a kind, and of a colour."

Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"

I am not suggesting that this quality of immediacy is unique to Chinese poetry.  It is found in many good English poems.  ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Lying Awake" (Thomas Hardy), and "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" come immediately to mind, but there are hundreds of others.)  And immediacy is arguably the defining feature of haiku: existence and the World embodied in a singular image -- a 17-syllable moment of enlightenment rendered in the present tense.  Still, there is a certain serene matter-of-factness underlaid with deep emotion in Chinese poetry that, for me at least, sets it apart from all other forms of verse.

   Watching a Lonely Wild Goose at Nightfall

There are few stars north of the Milky Way.
One wild goose calls, "Where am I going?"

If he'd known he'd lose his flock,
he would have begun his journey alone.

Hsiao Kang (503-551) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 62.

Wild geese, like lone birds, appear frequently in Chinese poetry.  As one might expect, they tend to bring a sense of longing and wistfulness into a poem (all of that endless journeying).  But we should resist the temptation to turn them into "symbols," "metaphors," or "allegories."  They are there because they are there:  a part of the World.  Yet every part of the World, wherever and whenever it appears, means something, doesn't it?

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)

The World is by turns breathtakingly immense and breathtakingly tiny.  So it is with our life.  One afternoon last week I looked up into the sky:  yellow-bordered white clouds, lit from behind by the setting sun, set against endless pale-blue; clouds and sky seen through the black, twisted, empty branches of a row of tall maples.  I suddenly felt a comforting, welcoming, reassuring immensity.  This was not something I put into words; I felt it.

     Night Thoughts While Traveling

Thin grass bends on the breezy shore,
and the tall mast seems lonely in my boat.

Stars ride low across the wide plain,
and the moon is tossed by the Yangtze.

What is fame and literary status --
the old and infirm should leave office.

Adrift, drifting:  what is left for the lone gull
adrift between earth and heaven.

Tu Fu (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 166.

One day this week, as I walked down a wide path within a wood, I noticed the leaves of several types of trees spread out on the ground before me.  The leaves did not lay in piles.  Instead, they had landed apart on the path, several inches of empty space between each of them.  They separately gleamed on the ground in the dim light of dusk.  I thought of them as planets and stars in a small universe.  Unique and irreplaceable, each of them.

     A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts

Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.

Tu Fu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 233.

Charles Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


This week, I returned to the following poem:

            From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest.

Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

What led me back to the poem?  I suspect that I needed relief from the overwrought reaction (in some quarters) to the presidential election.  There are those who believe the End of the World is at hand.  Of course, if the other candidate had been elected, there would have been an overwrought reaction (in some quarters) from those on the other side, some of whom would have believed the End of the World was at hand.

I can see why the elderly gentleman in Coleridge's poem beckoned to me.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Alternatively, I may have been subconsciously called back to the poem by this, which I had come across a day or so earlier:

"Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality:  only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.  Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean 'dumbness' or 'noiselessness'; it means more nearly that the soul's power to 'answer' to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.  For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru) (Ignatius Press 2009), pages 46-47.  The text of the book is based upon a lecture delivered by Pieper in Bonn in 1947.

Can one maintain "a receptive attitude of mind" if one's life is bound up with politics?  I have my doubts.  The reprehensible stereotyping engaged in, and the bigotry and sense of superiority displayed by, those on the losing end of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election demonstrate how a preoccupation with politics can destroy one's sense of fellow feeling and humanity.  But I will leave that topic alone, having visited it in my previous post.

As for silence:  the culture of politics is nothing if not noisy, isn't it?  "Those who do not remain silent do not hear."  Yes, exactly.

     How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, The Collected Poems of W. H. Davies (Jonathan Cape 1942).

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Yesterday evening I was walking south beside a meadow as the sun neared the ridgeline of the Olympic Mountains.  In a few minutes it would vanish.  The sky overhead and to the west was clear, but grey-purple clouds, shot through with orange and pink, lay along the horizons to the south, east, and north.  The deep-blue waters of Puget Sound were darkening.

I noticed a wordless calling sound -- a bleat of sorts -- coming from behind me, up in the sky.  It grew louder.  I soon realized that the sound was the honking of a flock of geese.  I stopped and waited for them.  They passed directly overhead -- three or four dozen Canadian geese in a ragged, shifting V-formation, all of them honking.

I have been hearing that sound for more than half a century.  Autumn is not autumn without it.  Continuity and certainty within ceaseless change.

                    Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 336.

David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"

I will always prefer wild geese to politicians ("a list of names").  But I shan't attempt to impose this preference on others.  For me, politics is the destroyer of repose, reflection, and tranquility.  I understand that others may feel differently.  So it goes in this "vale of Soul-making."

"[T]here is also a certain serenity in leisure.  That serenity springs precisely from our inability to understand, from our recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe; it springs from the courage of deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course."

Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (translated by Alexander Dru), page 47.

I am not fond of the assumption of certainty that accompanies political discourse.  So many utopian master plans!  All of them based upon classes, categories, and caricatures.  All of them chimerical.  All of them leaving individual human beings and individual human souls out of account.

                      A Recluse

Here lies (where all at peace may be)
A lover of mere privacy.
Graces and gifts were his; now none
Will keep him from oblivion;
How well they served his hidden ends
Ask those who knew him best, his friends.

He is dead; but even among the quick
This world was never his candlestick.
He envied none; he was content
With self-inflicted banishment.
'Let your light shine!' was never his way:
What then remains but, Welladay!

And yet his very silence proved
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
Finds its reflection everywhere.

Life's tempests must have waxed and waned:
The deep beneath at peace remained.
Full tides that silent well may be
Mark of no less profound a sea.
Age proved his blessing.  It had given
The all that earth implies of heaven;
And found an old man reconciled
To die, as he had lived, a child.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

With respect to the final two lines of the poem, it is important to remember that de la Mare considered childhood to be a charmed and magical time, the loss of which is to be regretted.

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

Friday, November 11, 2016


As I mentioned in a recent post, I did my best to completely ignore the presidential election.  I also chose not to vote in it:  I do not consider it my civic duty to cast a vote for the least unappealing candidate in a given election.  So I sat this one out.

However, I have been paying attention to the reactions of those who are not happy with the result of the election.  Their reactions are remarkably similar to the reactions of those who were not happy with the Brexit vote.  I expressed my feelings on this subject in a post I made on June 29 titled "Humanity."  Please bear with me, dear readers, but I feel compelled to restate those feelings at this time by reposting some of my thoughts:

"What concerns me is how the politicization of culture and of individual consciousness encourages people to adopt stereotypical, patronizing, and dehumanizing views of those who are on the other side of a political issue. This has been glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it has been an ongoing feature of the presidential campaign.

"Who among us is in a position to adopt such views?  Do those who hold these views realize that they are in fact dehumanizing themselves in the process?  They have become exactly what the politicians, political 'activists,' and media oversimplifiers and crisis-mongers want them to be: political animals."

"Being politicized leads to evaluating and judging the world and other human beings in terms of classes, categories, and clichés.  Never underestimate the allure of a priori conclusions.  For the politicized, everything appears to be simple and subject to explanation.  Us and them. The enlightened versus the benighted.

"All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual human being or with the individual human soul."

Thus concludes the homily for the day (and my unseemly quoting of myself, for which I apologize).

   Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be --
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Make no mistake:  each of us is standing there on the sand.  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

On the morning after Election Day, I stepped out into the garden.  Birds were chirping.  Squirrels were busy gathering seeds and nuts for the coming winter.  The World was still here.  My beautiful and wonderful country was still here.  Nothing had changed.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 413.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"

Friday, November 4, 2016

Leaves And Clocks

The wistful exhilaration of autumn is all about the passage of time, isn't it? Yes, I realize that I am stating the obvious.  Moreover, you may well say: "But isn't everything about the passage of time?"  You will get no argument from me.

Wistful exhilaration ought to be something we feel every day -- every moment, as a matter of fact.  Consider this:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave." Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1701).  This bit of advice is not morbid, nor is it intended to engender panic or a sense of impending doom.  And it is not a recommendation to embark upon a course of carpe diem hedonism. Rather, it is an instance of practical and ethical Stoic wisdom:  the present moment is all that each of us ever has; how do we intend to act?

The awareness of time passed and of time passing is present, explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every poem that Thomas Hardy wrote.  As one might expect, this is particularly true of those poems of his which are set in autumn.

   The Upper Birch-Leaves

Warm yellowy-green
In the blue serene,
How they skip and sway
On this autumn day!
They cannot know
What has happened below, --
That their boughs down there
Are already quite bare,
That their own will be
When a week has passed, --
For they jig as in glee
To this very last.

But no; there lies
At times in their tune
A note that cries
What at first I fear
I did not hear:
"O we remember
At each wind's hollo --
Though life holds yet --
We go hence soon,
For 'tis November;
-- But that you follow
You may forget!"

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Byroad near Kingoodie" (1962)

"But that you follow/You may forget!"  Hardy and Marcus Aurelius are of the same mind.  Yet, we mustn't go through life thinking of time as the ticking of a clock.  Life went on perfectly well for millennia in the absence of clocks.  The earth's "diurnal course" and its seasonal round sufficed. Eventually, bells began sounding from steeples and towers.  Music in the air.  Perhaps we should have left it at that.


We had the sun, stars, shadows.
In Greta's house, a box
Of numbers and wheels
And cleek-cleek, click-clock, that insect
Eating time at the wall.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

"Anyway, the thing about progress is that it looks much greater than it really is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein chose this as the "motto" for Philosophical Investigations.  (The sentence appears in a play written by Johann Nestroy (1801-1862).  A discussion of Wittgenstein's use of the quotation may be found in David Stern, "Nestroy, Augustine, and the Opening of the Philosophical Investigations," in Rudolf Haller and Klaus Puhl (editors), Wittgenstein and the Future of Philosophy: A Reassessment After 50 Years (2002).)

In his own words, Wittgenstein says this about progress:  "Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.'  Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features."  Ludwig Wittgenstein (translated by Peter Winch), Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press 1980), page 7.

So, yes, clocks represent "progress."  Of a sort.  I am haunted by thoughts of "time-saving devices" and of "multitasking."  Progress?

                             Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock's voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists:  a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

Yesterday afternoon, in the declining sunlight, I walked to the north beside a row of big-leaf maples, now emptied of leaves.  Each day the sun is setting further and further into the southwest.  The shadows of the bare branches of the maples stretched 50 yards or so to the northeast across a green expanse of grass.  The yellow, orange, and brown leaves that had departed from the maples were strewn across the sward.

The shadows of the empty branches were covered with fallen leaves.  One could imagine that the leaves had been reunited with the trees.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

"Earth never grieves!"  This is a cry of joy, not of despair.  Hence:  "New leaves will dance on high."  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go long after each of us has turned to dust can be a comforting one -- a source of serenity.

James McIntosh Patrick, "White Poplar, Carse of Gowrie"

In this part of the world, we received a record amount of rainfall in October. It was a month of puddles.  On those days when the sun briefly emerged, the puddles were a wonderful gift.  Fallen leaves floated on the still water. The endless blue sky and the empty branches of trees filled the spaces between the drifting leaves.  There it lay:  the entire World.

     It is deep midnight:
The River of Heaven
     Has changed its place.

Ransetsu (1653-1707) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 366.  "The River of Heaven" (ama-no-gawa) is the beautiful Japanese name for what we, in English, call "the Milky Way."

The River of Heaven turns above us.  Leaves fall at our feet.  Everything is in its place.  The World is perfect just as it is.

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 413.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Autumn simplifies things.  It reminds us of that which is elemental and essential in the World, and in our life.  This is good, since existence is not as fraught with complication as we think it is.

The prevailing culture tries to convince us that certain things are important, and deserve (nay, require) our attention.  Nearly all of these things are of no account, and may be completely disregarded.  Thus, for instance, as a native of this fair and wonderful land I am exercising my freedom by ignoring the current presidential election.  I have assiduously avoided hearing even a whisper of the goings-on.  Of course, I know who the two candidates are (in this day and age, some snippets of information always leak through), but why should I devote a single moment of thought or emotion to either of them?

This is not a political statement, for I have no interest in politics.  Nor am I denigrating those who find the election important.  I expect that some of you who are reading this are appalled at my disinterest.  Please be assured that this is not a matter of me feeling superior to those citizens who participate in the process.  You will have to take me on my word that I am neither supercilious nor cynical.  But, for me, it is a very simple proposition: why should I let either of those people into my life in any way, shape, or form?

Look outside.  The leaves are falling.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 364.

Earlier this week, after a two-day spell of rain, the sky cleared in the late afternoon.  Cast upon the damp and dark paths,  fallen leaves (brown, orange, and yellow in all their variations) glittered, lit by the declining sun.

"The small yellow acacia leaves lie on the dark earth like immobile glimmers, mute, lighted mirrors."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79 (Seagull Books 2013), page 268.

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1863)

The haiku that appear in this post are ones that I visit each autumn. Although I have been returning to them for years, and by now know them by heart, they remain fresh.  The comparison is inexact (works of art being one step removed from the particulars of the World), but the thought occurs to me:  are the leaves of autumn any less brilliant, any less beautiful, because we have seen them before?

     Blown from the west,
fallen leaves gather
     in the east.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass (editor), The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 91.

The grass of lawns and of fields in parks, having been browned by the summer sun, is turning green again with the arrival of the autumn rains. Palls of bright leaves are spread across deep green.  Soon only the grass will remain.

"How the yellow, pink or purple leaves released suddenly, one by one, at almost regular intervals, falling silently and serenely, magnify the light. We are not capable of this."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for November, 1978, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 329.

Alexander Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (1917)

This past week, on two separate occasions, I watched caterpillars (one black and tan; one black) cross the path in front of me.  I felt charmed and grateful for having encountered them.  Moreover, they served as a reminder that I am always in need of:  Pay attention!

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Caterpillars and human beings:  each of us in the midst of our own singular journey, crossing a brief, bright space from one dark wood to another.

Am I oversimplifying?  Anthropomorphizing?  Sentimentalizing?  If you spend time with the haiku of the masters (Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), you will soon become intimately acquainted with the lives and fates of fireflies, cicadas, spiders, fleas, mosquitoes, flies, caterpillars, and butterflies (to name but a few).  You will come to realize that, in this existence of ours, notions of oversimplification, anthropomorphization, and sentimentality are beside the point.  You will learn to banish modern irony from your life.

"Autumn trees:  as if covered with yellow and white butterflies."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for October, 1975, in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79, page 268.

William Samuel Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

From a caterpillar in autumn to a butterfly in spring.  Is this what autumn's poignant mix of sadness and exhilaration is telling us?

"Continually regard the World as one living thing, composed of one substance and one soul.  And reflect how all things have relation to its one perception; how it does all things by one impulse; how all things are the joint causes of all that come into being; and how closely they are interwoven and knit together."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Hastings Crossley), Meditations, Book IV, Section 40, in Hastings Crossley (editor), The Fourth Book of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Macmillan 1882), page 35.

How does one incorporate this sort of perspective into one's own life?  A difficult task.  But think of this, for instance:  the seasons will continue to come and go long after we have returned to dust.  This can be a calming realization.

     The grasses of the garden,
They fall,
     And lie as they fall.

Ryōkan (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 366.

Wistfulness amid beauty.  Is this a unique autumn state of mind?  I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure.  This seems to be the way the World works.  For which we should be grateful.

"This unexpected gift of a tree brightened by the low sun at the end of autumn, as when a candle is lit in a darkening room."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Notes from the Ravine," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 343.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Flowers And Stars

It has taken me far too long to get it through my thick skull (and into my head and heart) that Keats has been right all along.  But better late than never.  To wit:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Poems (1820).

One comes across those lines in one's youth, and one is likely to be enraptured.  I know I was.  Yet (at least in my hopeless case) it takes a lifetime to feel them.  Having at last reached that point, I will not brook any of the usual modern cavils:  "What is 'truth'?  What is 'beauty'?  Everything is relative.  How can we 'know' anything?"  I will have none of that, thank you.  Life is too short.

Thus, I will turn to flowers in a field.  And stars.

Where innocent bright-eyed daisies are,
     With blades of grass between,
Each daisy stands up like a star
     Out of a sky of green.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).  The poem is untitled.

One need not limit this lovely image to daisies.  The subject of the following passage is daucus carota (commonly known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace).

     "In the shade of tall oak trees in stately array, an airy nave in which you become calmer as soon as you have stepped across the threshold -- as in a big house.
     "You then see white spots slightly wavering, seemingly floating, like flecks of foam scattered here and there, and higher than the dark, vague mass of grass.  At the same time, equally vaguely, because things thus seen are vague, you think of ghosts hovering in this shadowy light so favorable to uncertain, unlikely forms of life . . .
     "Sparse umbels in the shadows, constellations of sorts that are more familiar, less bright, less cold and especially less fixed than those that could seemingly respond to them from above the trees once the day's beautiful veil has been drawn.
     "So I have arrived on the threshold of a kind of grass sky on which seemingly hover within arm's reach -- instead of sharp single stars -- fragile little galaxies that are floating, nearly weightless, and white just like milk or like sheep's wool when it stays snagged on gorse in the Breton islands."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Daucus, or Wild Carrot," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 209.

Hans Wilt, "Spring in Wienerwald" (1909)

Rossetti's stars in a sky of green and Jaccottet's galaxies hovering above the dark floor of a grove of oaks are "all ye need to know."  No further comment is necessary.  It would be the height of folly to say:  "Rossetti's poem is lovely because . . ."  Nothing can be added by saying:  "Jaccottet's passage is wonderful because . . ."  One of the besetting illnesses of the modern world is the compulsion to "explain" and "explicate" everything. We don't know when to leave well enough alone.

My acquaintance with the image of flowers as stars began with the following poem.

                 The Rambler

I do not see the hills around,
Nor mark the tints the copses wear;
I do not note the grassy ground
And constellated daisies there.

I hear not the contralto note
Of cuckoos hid on either hand,
The whirr that shakes the nighthawk's throat
When eve's brown awning hoods the land.

Some say each songster, tree, and mead --
All eloquent of love divine --
Receives their constant careful heed:
Such keen appraisement is not mine.

The tone around me that I hear,
The aspects, meanings, shapes I see,
Are those far back ones missed when near,
And now perceived too late by me!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

I cannot recall when I first read the poem.  But the phrase "constellated daisies" has always stayed with me.  In one sense it is merely a passing image that is used in service of the overall theme of the poem.  But, if you spend enough time with Hardy's poems, you come to realize that small images such as these account for a great deal of the wondrousness of his poetry.  Over the years, scores of them accumulate within your mind. Unexpectedly and unaccountably, they float up long after you first read them, for who knows what reason.  Well, Beauty and Truth, I suppose.

Carl Stolz, "Meadow with Flowers" (1939)

A good poem (or any good work of art) brings us back to the world.  It prompts us to take a fresh look at things.  This fresh look encompasses both human and natural particulars.  These particulars are not always lovely and cheerful -- poetry is not mere escapism -- but, in the hands of a good poet, they bring us into the presence of Beauty and Truth.

     "Beauty:  scattered like a seed, at the mercy of the winds, the storms, not making a sound, often lost, always destroyed; but still it blossoms haphazardly, here, there, fed by shadows, by the funereal earth, welcomed by profundity.  Weightless, fragile, almost invisible, apparently without force, exposed, abandoned, surrendered, obedient -- it binds itself to what is heavy, immobile; and a flower blooms on the mountainside.  It is.  It persists against noise, against folly, unwavering amidst blood and malediction, in life that cannot be assumed, cannot be lived.  Thus the spirit moves in spite of everything, inevitably ridiculous, unrewarded, unconvincing. . . .
     "I've said it a hundred times:  I am left with almost nothing; but it's like a very narrow gate through which we must pass and nothing indicates that the space beyond it is not as vast as we have imagined.  It is only a matter of passing through the gate and of it not swinging shut for ever."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry for March, 1962, in Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), pages 57-59.

This prose passage is followed by an untitled poem:

Let silent grief
At least brood on this last chance
Of light.

Let this utmost misery
Harbour the chance of flowers.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Ibid, page 59.

Mind you, the purpose of poetry (and of art in general) is not to edify or to instruct.  This is why, for instance, "political poetry" is not poetry.  I return to a Buddhist piece of wisdom which has appeared here in the past:  we mustn't forget that a good poem (or any good work of art) is merely a finger pointing at the moon.

Tina Blau (1845-1916), "On the Schleissheimerstrasse"

But all this talk of Beauty and Truth, Truth and Beauty, means nothing outside of the larger context:  "How to Live.  What to Do."  (To borrow the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens.)  Once again, Keats is our guide.

"Call the world if you please 'The vale of Soul-making.'  Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it)."

John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats (February 14 - May 3, 1819), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 249-250.  A side-note:  Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in May of 1819, the same month in which the letter was posted.  This particular passage was written sometime between April 21 and April 30, 1819.

The phrase "the vale of Soul-making" receives a great deal of attention, and rightfully so.  It is a marvelous thing.  But the passage that immediately follows the two sentences quoted above deserves our attention as well.

"I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence -- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions -- but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception -- they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God -- how then are Souls to be made?  How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them -- so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence?  How, but by the medium of a world like this?"

John Keats, Ibid, page 250.

"How, but by the medium of a world like this?"  Wonderful.  Yet I harbor no illusions:  this world contains evil, ugliness, falsity, pain, and sorrow.  We experience them every day.  But withal it is a world of Beauty and Truth.    

A world of flowers and of stars.


The stars are everywhere to-night,
Above, beneath me and around;
They fill the sky with powdery light
And glimmer from the night-strewn ground;
For where the folded daisies are
In every one I see a star.

And so I know that when I pass
Where no sun's shadow counts the hours
And where the sky was there is grass
And where the stars were there are flowers,
Through the long night in which I lie
Stars will be shining in my sky.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).

Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)