WHO GOES THERE? HOPKINS’ THE LANTERN OUT OF DOORS

To understand this poem, first remember that Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) lived in Britain before the invention of the flashlight (or “torch” as it is called in British English). Those going about outdoors at night then used lanterns, commonly a lit candle enclosed in a framework of metal and glass, with a handle at the top by which it might be held without burning the fingers. It was a weak light, but it did the job.

Hopkins muses on seeing the passing light of a lantern in the darkness:hhcat

THE LANTERN OUT OF DOORS

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

At times one sees a lantern moving outside in the darkness, and it attracts the poet’s curiousity, “interests our eyes.” And the question arises in the mind, “Who goes there?” Who is passing in the black of night? Where did the person come from, and where is he going out there with his light, though the vast blackness, “all down darkness wide”? We might think “wading” a misprint for “waving,” but it is not. It is used here in an old and rather obscure sense meaning “to penetrate, to proceed through.” So the lantern light both penetrates and proceeds through the darkness. Hopkins is saying, “Where is the holder of the lantern from, I wonder, and where is he bound, with his light penetrating all down the wide darkness?”

Hopkins then comments on such an experience, using it as an analogy for life:

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Hopkins encounters men who pass through his life in the same manner. They come into and out of his life either with handsome physical form (“beauty bright in mould”) or with beauty of mind, of intellect, or with some other exceptional or unusual quality (“what not else makes rare”) that causes them to stand out in our dark lives like the light of a lantern in the night.

Such people cast their light (“they rain…rich beams”) on the gloom and boredom of stale, daily life (“against our much thick and marsh air.” Until they pass out of our lives either by dying or by leaving, moving on to some far other place (“till death or distance buys them quite”). “Buys” here means, “takes possession of.”

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Life is short; so one way or another, by death or departure, people leave us, the lantern-light they cast on our lives through their physical appearance or their mental qualities and character soon is gone (“Death or distance soon consumes them”)

And, Hopkins laments, no matter how closely he may follow their movements with his eyes (“Wind what most I may eye after”) — like watching a passing lantern outside in the dark of night, he cannot be there after the light passes to see where they go, what becomes of them (“be in at the end I cannot”). Hopkins uses “wind” (with a long “i” here to rhyme with “mind” two lines later) to mean the movement of the eye as it follows the passing lantern.

He adds the old saying, “Out of sight is out of mind.” Once they are gone, there is no more connection. He cannot go after them to see what their destination, their ultimate fate might be, he cannot be there to help or to guide or advise; they are apparently on their own on their journey.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

But, Hopkins the Roman Catholic convert tells us, they are not alone. He cannot go with them himself, but another does. That other is Christ. While those who pass through are lives are “out of sight” and “out of mind” once they are gone, Christ minds where they are going, Christ is interested in them. He knows what to try to accept (“avow”) in them and what needs change (“amend”). He watches them (“eyes them”), his heart longs for them (“heart wants”), his feet follow them lovingly on their journey (“foot follows kind”). He is their rescuer, their redeemer (“ransom”), and their first (both chronologically and in importance), firm (“fast”) friend in life, and also their last friend at its end and beyond.

It is a rather simple little poem about Hopkins’ personal religious view that Christ accompanies people on the journey of life far better and more surely than other humans can or will, and also that he is their truest friend. So this poem is a kind of little sermon in words, but Hopkins says it so nicely (though with some cart-before-the-horse phrasing) that it does not grate on the ear as religious sermons tend to do. One always has the underlying feeling, however, that Hopkins half believes what he says in such religious verses, half tries to convince himself that what he says is true. He obviously feels that life tends to be a dark, dank, murky, uncomfortable affair, (“much thick and marsh air”), and his odd little analogy likening a stranger passing with a lantern in the outer darkness with the passage of other people through our lives is a rather pleasant one because of the simple contrast of darkness and light.

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HOW TO READ HOPKINS: TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

Certain of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins require a considerable amount of unscrambling. To some they are often just hopelessly obscure at first or even second reading, and I would counsel those people not to give up. Often several readings of a Hopkins poem, sometimes more intent readings, sometimes more relaxed readings, will allow the meaning to come through, just as a developing bath in an old photography studio will gradually bring a sensible picture out of the surface of what seems at first merely blank paper.

There are certain helpful keys to reading Hopkins:

1. Remember that he often arranges words in unusual order, and when you rearrange them in the “right” order, a line will frequently make more sense.
2. Remember that he likes to use old words, and also likes to use familiar words with more old-fashioned or unusual definitions, sometimes not the primary definition one finds in a dictionary. For this, checking with the Oxford English dictionary and reading all of the definitions and examples for a word is frequently helpful.
3. Remember that Hopkins will often say something very simple in what seems a complicated way; he does this for poetic reasons, and because he is so fascinated with the sounds of words and their ranges of meaning.
4. Hopkins tends to repeat a thought in different ways from poem to poem, so the more of his poetry you read, the easier it becomes to understand a given poem.

Today’s poem is one of those requiring patience, but before one can understand it, it helps to know certain things.

1. Hopkins was very fond of the music of the baroque English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He even wrote a poem in Purcell’s honor.
2. In this poem he expresses his view of the purpose of physical beauty, of “good looks” in humans, and he bases his conclusions largely on an event in the history of the English Church that used to be known to every English schoolboy — the encounter of pope-to-be Gregory with young English slaves in Rome.
3. Hopkins had a love of Nature, but being very “religious,” he thought that seeing beauty in Nature was seeing God manifesting in Nature. He repeats this concept in various poems, and we find it in today’s poem.

So before we even read it, we know that it gives Hopkins’ opinion of the purpose of physical beauty. For Hopkins, who was a lover of beauty but still very religious and also homosexual, it was a matter of concern. We can say that this poem is Hopkins attempting to reconcile his love of beauty with his religious beliefs.

Let’s take a look:

TO WHAT SERVES MORTAL BEAUTY

To what serves mortal beauty | dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood the O-seal-that-so | feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? | See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

To make things a bit easier, let’s look at the beginning this way, rearranging the lines:

To what serves mortal beauty — dangerous –
does set dancing blood — the O-seal-that-so | feature –
flung prouder form Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

First Hopkins gives his question:
What use is the dangerous beauty of mortals? What end does it serve?
Hopkins knows that physical beauty can, on the one hand, be dangerous, because it “sets the blood dancing” — it can excite and attract.
And what is it that does the exciting, that sets the blood dancing?

It is the “O, seal that so” feature, the face that makes us wish it to be “sealed” like a letter and kept “so,” kept as it is; the beauty that has been flung into “prouder form” [put into more magnificent form] than “Purcell tune lets tread to.” By that Hopkins means that the visible form of physical beauty has greater magnificence than the stately steps (tread) of a dance composed by Henry Purcell.

Now Hopkins begins his defense of physical beauty, his justification for it:

See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

“See,” Hopkins tells us, “Physical beauty does this: it keeps man’s consciousness attentive to “things that are” — to the material world, not just to intellectual abstractions. Remember that for Hopkins, we can see God in and through the beauty of the material world.

“What good means,” Hopkins tells us, meaning “What good means” to an end physical beauty is. Why? Because beauty is so striking that “a glance may master [may affect one] more than a long gaze. By this Hopkins means that a mere glance at physical beauty can have a stronger effect than a long but unaffected gaze at something not strikingly beautiful.

Hopkins now gives us the historical example upon which his conclusions are based, his “proof” that a striking glance at physical beauty can have effects far beyond the ordinary:

Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

Hopkins expects his readers to know what he is referring to here, and any Englishman educated in history would have known. He is referring to an incident from the history of the English church as recorded by the Venerable Bede, an incident in the slave markets of Rome. Gregory, who was to become Pope (“father”) of the Catholic Church, happened to be passing through the slave markets when he saw some very striking youths with blondish hair and pale skin. Having never seen such people before, he asked what they were. He was told they were Angles — “English.” When Gregory, who was much given to punning, heard the reply “Angli” (“Angles,” i. e. “English”) in Latin, he responded, Non Angli sed angeli — “Not Angles but angels,” …if they were Christians.

That chance encounter, that attraction of Gregory’s glance by the young slaves, was said to have led to Gregory’s efforts as Pope toward the conversion of England to Christianity. “Windfalls” here means something knocked down by the winds of war, as farmers speak of “windfall apples” that fall from trees to the ground in a strong wind, and may then be picked up. So then, Hopkins tells us, if it were not for Gregory being struck by the physical beauty of the “Anglish” lads, how else could he have “gleaned” them — that is, how could he have selected them to become Christians, marked them out from all the rest of the swarms of humanity in Rome?

How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarmed Rome?

Here is a rather idealized image of Gregory seeing the young Angles. The real slave market would have been considerably rougher and far less clean and tidy than we see here, I suspect.

nonangli

So, when the glance of Gregory happened to fall on the “Anglish” lads, and he was struck by their looks, in that chance meeting — “that day’s dear chance” — their beauty was what ultimately resulted in the conversion of the English nation to Christianity –

But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

Man, Hopkins opines, is by nature so moved to worship that he would worship a block of wood or an uncarved stone. But “our law,” that is, the law of human nature, tells man to love instead what is worthiest of love, if all were known, and what is worthiest of love is “men’s selves,” humans themselves. “Self,” Hopkins adds, flashes off frame and face.” Now we know from our reading of another Hopkins poem that expressing “self-nature” was important to him, and in this “self” of humans, Hopkins sees a manifestation of God, because according to the Bible, man was made “in the image of God.” And the greatest “self” to Hopkins was that in which God and his grace are most clearly seen. Remember these lines from his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

So humans naturally love beauty in the appearance of other humans, in the face and “frame,” (body) because, Hopkins feels, they sense God behind it.

But here naturally arises the problem of what to do with such beauty. Hopkins certainly does not take the course of hedonism and physical desire. Instead he sees human beauty as useful in the Platonic sense that it leads us gradually beyond itself to the divine:

What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

How, then, should we react when we encounter beauty in human form and face? Hopkins tells us to “merely meet it,” that is, just see it, recognize and appreciate it, “home at heart” (untroubled by it, secure in ourselves) as the sweet gift of heaven, BUT, and this is “Hopkins’ big but,” as PeeWee Herman would say, once one has seen and appreciated physical beauty in a human through just looking at it, then one should “LEAVE, LET THAT ALONE.” In other words, see it, enjoy its beauty, then let it go and do not become attached to it — “Look, don’t touch.” Why? Because beyond it is something more to be wished for, the “better beauty” than the physical, the grace which comes from God — the “unmerited favor of God,” as Christians would put it.

So that is Hopkins’ notion of physical beauty in humans; it is naturally attractive to us and we can see God manifesting in it, but we should not become attached to the physical form or we shall miss that which is even more beautiful in it and through it, the grace of God.

It is a sentiment much like that found in William Blake’s poem:

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

It is not a surprising view for a sensitive soul who became a Jesuit. What is surprising is that, like Blake, Hopkins makes poetry of it.

David

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CANDLEMAS: SPRING BEGINS

Tomorrow is Candlemas — Imbolc — the old beginning of spring. Yesterday was the lunar New Year, celebrated in Asia, which is also the traditional beginning of spring. So we can see, as I have said before, that if one follows the old European seasonal calendar, with its quarter and cross-quarter days, one is, with only slight variation, following the same calendar as the old hokku writers of Japan.

Here is a hokku for the beginning of spring, written by Gyôdai:

Snowmelt;
A crow cawing
In the cloudy hills.

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and whether or not there are signs of spring where you are, the Yin forces of Nature have begun to diminish, and the Yang forces are growing. Where I live, snowdrops have already sprouted their short green leaves above the earth and have put forth their drooping, snow-white blossoms. The days are growing longer, the nights ever shorter.

In today’s hokku, we see the increase of Yang and decrease of Yin in the melting of the snow. And by a happy chance, in the repetition of the same initial consonant in “crow,” “cawing,” and “cloudy” we also hear the cawing of the crow.

David

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BROOKS TOO BROAD FOR LEAPING, FIELDS WHERE ROSES FADE

Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted own — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a doubled meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance, that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.

David

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UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

sntr

Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten –
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.

David

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LEAVING OUR DAILY LIVES TO RETURN ANEW: ROBERT FROST’S BIRCHES

There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.

icebirch

As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:

BIRCHES

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the line of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.

Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.

If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.

This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves:

Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.

And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm

(Now am I free to be poetical?)

Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer…

Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.

And now Frost discusses swinging technique:

He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.

Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;

And so I dream of going back to be.

The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.

And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.

In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.

David

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KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Every year about this time I like to re-post this:

Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year. Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

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That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter. That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter. I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance –

… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas. There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others, who may not call it by the same name, “Merry Christmas.” The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season. As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing: The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity. To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter. That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring. And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

English: Ilex species; Common Holly. I noticed...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol. Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us. The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life. That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality. It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

God Bless Us, Every One!

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation. We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean. But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death. Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday season, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice. However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like the altered Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life. It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well. It is a part of our spiritual journey.

David

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