A sunny morning;
The daffodils I planted
Are now my neighbors’ spring.
A sunny morning;
The daffodils I planted
Are now my neighbors’ spring.
Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:
Who was it
That lived here before me?
“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context. He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now. But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer. It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.
I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods. Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated. I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.
Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:
I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED
I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.
The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil). The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell. An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments. But his efforts to sell his flowers failed. People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear. So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.
So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.
Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside. Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.
Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower,
The solitary stars,
Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds. And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season. But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”
And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.
Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears. And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat, when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.
Now we can understand this poem on two levels. First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.
The second level is that of the writer himself. He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him. They just don’t “get” what he creates. Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.
As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad. And Housman was right. Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.
Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible. He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas. It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Yes, today is Candlemas — Imbolc — the beginning of spring in the old calendar. It hardly seems like it, waking to a freezing wind and the likelihood of snow, but nonetheless the Wheel of the Year has turned, and warmer weather is not far off.
The traditional flower of Candlemas is the white and green snowdrop, but the winter has been so unusually cold here that there is not a snowdrop blossom in sight.
There is much to be appalled by in the world as spring begins. One has only to turn to the news. But this morning came the particularly disturbing report that protestors at the University of California at Berkeley managed, through violent action, to prevent a presentation by a right-wing speaker with whom they disagreed.
According to the news, the protests began peacefully with people carrying signs reading “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.” Well, they are wrong. Aside from the issue of whether the intended speaker at the University was promulgating “hate speech” or not, there is still the fact that whether a speech contains supposed “hate” or not makes no difference. Free speech is free speech, and when one limits what can be said, it is no longer free. But violence is not free speech. Violence is intimidation and the death of free speech.
Free speech follows the dictum of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (wrongfully attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Refusing people the right to say that of which we do not approve also denies free speech, no matter how hateful we may find their words to be.
I particularly dislike the modern term “hate speech.” It can be used to stigmatize and silence the views of most anyone who disagrees with one’s own opinions. There is, of course, real hate in speech that has as its intent the physical or mental harm of a person or a group of people, and there are justifiably laws to prevent the incitement of such violence. But to merely express one’s views about a political system or a religious system, or any kind of system or body of people, even if those views are strongly negative and found quite offensive by some, is not necessarily “hate speech,” and the term is all too frequently loosely and inaccurately used. Accusing someone of “hate speech” can be a very effective form of intimidation and an attempt to deny someone the right of free speech. The best antidote to genuine “hate speech” is not denial of the right of the speaker to express opinions, but rather obvious and public non-violent disapproval based on factual evidence countering the position of the one doing the supposed “hating.” In my view, using the term “hate speech” has become a convenient and irrational way of stereotyping views with which we do not agree, without offering a rational challenge. We may detest those views, but in countering them, one should use reason and facts, not simply a dismissive catchphrase.
We must always remember that with free speech, one does not have the right not to be offended. But one does have the right to speak in active opposition to views one finds through reason and evidence to be wrong or harmful — and in many cases, not only the right, but also the responsibility.
We unfortunately find ourselves living in interesting times.