A crow alights
In blowing leaves:
Tomorrow evening is Halloween — Samhain in the old agricultural calendar. It is a very ancient holiday. Traditionally, it is the beginning of winter, and the time when the spirits of the Dead return. So it reminds us of all that is withering in Nature, and of our own mortality.
Buson wrote a hokku very much in keeping with this time of year. You will recall that in traditional Japanese hokku, fallen leaves relate to winter, and winter corresponds to the latter part of old age and to death:
Around the old man’s shack —
The very old man is in keeping with winter, as are the fallen leaves piled up around his dwelling. Being so old, he does nothing to sweep them away, and in the leaves that have fallen on one another, we feel the accumulation of the many years of the old man’s life.
Where I have “old man,” the original has “long-life [person]”
Human romantic relationships can be difficult and messy, sometimes leaving a swath of emotional destruction in their wake, not only for those directly involved but also for those who know them.
Today’s poem by William Ernest Henley is precisely on that topic, and it is written with an effective but simple rhythm. Its subject is that old (but sadly often true) cliché of the wreck of a close relationship by the involvement of one’s romantic partner with one’s long-time friend.
FRIENDS… OLD FRIENDS…
Friends… old friends…
One sees how it ends.
A woman looks
Or a man lies,
And the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies,
Ruined with brawling
Enchant no more
As they did before,
And so it ends
It is so simply written that its message is all the more effective. All it takes to end a long and valued friendship is for one’s romantic partner and one’s friend to develop a desire for one another. And then, suddenly one day, the formerly-oblivious neglected party notices, sees a glance, catches something slightly off in a conversation —
A woman looks
Or a man lies…
That moment of revelation is all it takes to change one’s perception of life; all at once,
…the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies…
are ruined with quarrels, accusations and recriminations. It taints everything. Even the pleasure one had in the surrounding sky and earth, in passing clouds and sparkling waters, is gone. “They enchant no more.” And that is true as well of the friend and of the romantic partner. All joy and trust are gone.
Friends… old friends…
And what if it ends?
Shall we dare to shirk
What we live to learn?
It has done its work,
It has served its turn;
And, forgive and forget
Or hanker and fret,
We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
Well, what if it all ends? Shall we ignore the lesson life has taught, shall we try to pretend that nothing has happened, attempt to glue the shattered pieces of friendship back together? No matter if we try, the result will still be loss. The experience has done its work, it has accomplished what it must. And even if we wish to forgive the betrayal, attempt to smile and forget, what was will be no more. “The fallen flower does not return to the branch.”
We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
Today’s poem, even in its austerity, is one of the great mourning poems of the English language. Whitman has his poems on the death of Lincoln, but those are “state” poems; Auden has his effectively-overstated “Stop All the Clocks.” And Housman has this poem, which manages to take us from stiff-lipped objectivity to a moving cry of the heart. Let’s take it verse by verse:
THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK
The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that’s due and right
Let’s home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.
The speaker of the poem is in a cemetery. The church and graveside rites are over, the grave has been filled in and the tombstone set in place. Out of a grey and darkening sky, the rain beats down on the stone and on the new-piled dirt of the hillock that marks the burial. The writer speaks in his thoughts to the one buried there, and as he does so, speaks to himself as well. All has been done that’s due and right — the memorial services and ritual words, the flowers, the black garments. Yet he stands there in the rain, the freshly-dug clay clinging to his boots.
Now he says farewell: “My lad, good-night, for I must turn away.” Everything is ended, including your life and all it meant. It is time to leave.
Good-night, my lad, for nought’s eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.
And still he pauses. “Good-night, my lad,” he repeats, “for nought’s eternal.” Nothing is forever. Nothing lasts. Everything ends. Even our relationships, yours and mine — that is certain and obvious. The mourner tries to tell himself that “Tomorrow I shall miss you less.” This ache of loss, the heaviness of spirit, are things that only time may ease.
Over the hill the highway marches
And what’s beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.
The highway — the main road — passes over the hill and beyond into the wide world and all it holds, a world and time that the person in the grave will not see. The highway means a future, new experiences. It is a symbol that the mourner’s road of life will continue, while that of the deceased has ended here at this soggy hillock of earth. Given all that must await out there, the mourner again tells himself that the sorrow and painful memories will gradually fade away; sad thoughts of the deceased will come less and less, until the ache is no longer felt.
The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.
He tells the departed, and in doing so himself, that the skies are not always raining and grey through the year; life now will not always be gloom and sorrow. There are sure to be sunny times, and the mourner will no doubt have pleasant days, and meet new and good friends in his wanderings.
Through all this he has repeated to himself, in various ways, that the painful memories will lessen, that he will be happy again, that he will make new acquaintances — but at the last verse he drops this would-be objectivity in a wrenching cry of sorrow:
But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.
“The house is fallen that none can build again.” The house is the body and life of the friend, once filled with joy and hopes. But now that house is fallen, and none can build it again. No one can change that. And the mourner expresses his own profound sorrow and the sorrow of the human condition by projecting it onto the mother of the deceased:
“How full of joy and woe your mother was all those years ago, when in the happiness of having a child and in the pains of childbirth, she brought you into this world. And now all her hopes and wishes for you have come to nought. You are dead, and tonight you lie in the earth and the dark and the beating rain.”
Though it is thought that the poem was influenced by the death of Housman’s brother Herbert, who died in Africa in the Boer War, the first draft of the last stanza was actually written before that event.
This verse is number XVIII (18) in the volume titled Last Poems, published in 1922.
The autumn chill;
Every place I live in
Belongs to another.
We have entered the time for autumn hokku. Autumn is when Nature withers, and the energies of life go inward. It is also a time of migration for birds and animals, and so is connected to travel among humans as well.
This hokku gives us a sense that we are all transients on earth, just passing through. Some people are able to own houses and “put down roots,” but for many, life is a sequence of rentals, always living in a building that belongs to someone else, always at the whim of circumstance. But there is a truth in that; nothing here really belongs to us. Nothing here can really be ours. Nothing here will last.
The verse is based on a hokku by Issa that is usually translated differently; but this rendering is better, and has a deeper significance.
In less than a week, July ends and August begins. In the Hokku Calendar, summer ends with the last day of July, and the first of August is Harvest Home, as it was commonly called, or in older speech, Lammas, and in Gaelic Lughnasadh (Loo-nuh-suh). Harvest home is the beginning of autumn in the old calendar.
Harvest Home comes halfway between Midsummer’s Day and the Autumn Equinox. It is so called because in old times it was when the harvest is “brought home” to barn and house. Prominent in this harvest is the ripened grain, and that leads us to its second name, Lammas.
Lammas is a slurring of the words “Loaf Mass,” so called because that was when the first grain was brought in, ground to flour, and a loaf baked from it and taken to church. So we can think of it as the first baking of bread from the new harvest.
All of this connects us to the earth and to very ancient times, because this harvesting of the grain was ritualized as the annual death of the Spirit of the Grain. Through spring and summer it grows and flourishes, dressed in green, and at summer’s end it matures and is cut down and partly ground to flour, but later the “body” is also placed in the earth at spring planting (as seed grain), so the Spirit is resurrected and dies each year. In later folk tunes with liquor in mind, the Spirit is called “John Barleycorn.”
But the Spirit of Grain was generally seen as female, and stalks of grain would be woven into an ornamental shape kept indoors through the winter, called in some places a “corn dolly” — “corn” meaning grain in the British Isles.
There were many variations on this practice. In one, the last tuft of grain was woven into a human form, decorated with ribbons, carried into the farmhouse, and seated in a chair of honor at the Harvest Supper. Other regions had other customs relating to the “corn dolly,” and even other names and forms for it.
In any case, the “power” of the grain, its “spirit” was felt to be preserved over winter in the corn dolly until the time of spring planting.
So Lammas, Harvest Home, is an old harvest festival that we would do well to bring back into celebration. I am in favor of anything that reminds us that our lives depend on the earth and its produce, and that we should respect it.
A hokku by Chinshi:
The snail moves round
To the underside of the leaf;
If you reach back in your memory to previous postings about the Hokku Calendar — the Hokku Year — you may recall that the actual effect of an astronomical event such as Midsummer’s Day (the Summer Solstice) is felt about a month later than the event itself.
We look on Midsummer’s Day as the time when the Yang energies reach their maximum and then begin to decline according to the position of the sun; but because the actual effect is not felt until a month later, we do not immediately experience the manifestation of that event in our lives.
All of this is leading up to reminding you that July 22nd is nearing. That is about a month after Midsummer’s Day, and what it means for us is that the Yang energy of summer — “fire” energy –will manifest at its highest point.
Because of this, it is traditionally believed that people should not exert themselves too much at that time, should not go on trips, and should not go outdoors in the middle of the day. It has to do with the effects of this “extreme Yang” energy on the body.
This time even has its own name in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars: it is called “Great Heat,” and it takes place approximately July 22-24th.
Of course that means we are closer to the traditional end of summer and the very old holiday of “Harvest Home” — Lammas, also called Lugnasadh (LOO-nuh-suh), which is usually celebrated on or close to August 1st.