SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN: WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR AND HOKKU

In much of Western poetry, an event is used simply as a lead-in to talking about another subject somehow related to the first. An example is this poem by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864):

DEATH OF DAY

My pictures blacken in their frames
As night comes on,
And youthful maids and wrinkled dames
Are all now one.

Death of the day! a sterner Death
Did worse before;
The fairest form, the sweetest breath,
Away he bore.

Landor has begun with the light of day departing from a room in which paintings hang, and in them are women both young and old. But as the light fades, the pictures all turn gradually black as night falls. All of this, however, is just an introduction to his real subject:

Landor calls the end of day the “death” of the day. And he immediately moves on to his main subject by saying that a sterner, a more real and harsh death than that of day was when Death took away a beautiful person that he obviously loved, someone beautiful in form and face. By “sweetest breath” he does not mean only that this beautiful person had a fresh and inoffensive breath. In biblical usage (and Western poets were once heavily influenced by the Bible, which in translation was considered the primary book of English literature), when the breath departs the life departs, so Landor is using “breath” to mean that the sweetest life is gone, the life of the beloved one.

“Away he bore” is of course a personification of Death as a dark, male figure; Death carried away the life of the beloved one.

In the previous posting, a variation on a hokku by Buson, we also had an “ending event” — a spring evening. And if you are a regular reader here, you will recall that evening, which is the end of day, also corresponds to the waning of the Yang energies that cause all the growth and life in spring and summer. So early evening corresponds to autumn. It does not symbolize autumn, it just has that feeling of being the same in some way. That is why when we talk about an evening in autumn, we are using harmony of similarity. When we talk about an evening in spring, however, we are using harmony of contrast, because evening is a time of ending, but spring is a time of beginning.

Landor obviously felt the same similarity — end of day, end of life (Death). But the big difference is that Landor comes right out and says it: “Death of the day,” which of course hokku does not, because hokku is much more subtle, more filled with unspoken implications, and that is a great part of the beauty of hokku. In hokku it is more important to FEEL such connections and rather too crude and blunt to actually SAY them.

I remember my Chinese teacher, who was brought up in the old way, telling us that in the China of her day, people would not say “I love you” to another. That was considered vulgar and brash, because saying something is easy; the far more meaningful way is to show someone that you love them through your actions toward them, how you treat them. That is very much the attitude of hokku. It is far more meaningful, more fitting the hokku aesthetic, to imply something while leaving it unspoken. “Show me, don’t tell me.”

So what would a hokku writer do with the event Landor experienced, but used as his introduction to talking about the death of his beloved? The writer of hokku would reduce it to the brevity of hokku, and would use only the event itself, an event filled with unspoken implications.

We could make it an autumn verse, if we wanted harmony of similarity, like this:

Day darkens;
All the paintings on the wall
Become the same.

We often find verses or lines in Western poetry that by themselves have something of the spirit of hokku, but generally, as I first mentioned and as we see in Landor’s poem, they are only the lead-in to, the excuse or inspiration for, talking about something else. But in hokku it is the EVENT ONLY that we want, because such events in a season, in a life, are filled with unspoken meaning. That is why we say of hokku that it is “much in little.”

The hokku variation on Landor’s “event” would require someone to be very quiet and aware to experience and think worthy of notice something as simple as the light fading in a room and the paintings gradually losing their colors and images with the coming of night. One has the sense of someone sitting there alone in the dim silence as the minutes slowly pass and everything blackens all around, someone who, for reasons unknown, does not rise to turn on a light (or light a candle in earlier times), but just continues sitting there in solitude, gradually enveloped by the night.

David

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SPRING CONTRAST, SPRING SIMILARITY

Here is a variation on a hokku by Buson:

The heavy doors
Of a temple gate close;
The spring evening.

What is behind appreciation of this verse?

First, it is set in the season of spring, which is a time of new beginnings, freshness, and growth. But in contrast to this, we see the heavy, old wooden doors of a temple creaking shut. The weight of the doors is in contrast to the physical lightness of spring. The age of the doors, which being temple doors means they are quite old, is also in contrast with the newness of spring. Further, the time of the hokku is evening, when light (Yang) gradually gives way to darkness (Yin).

Now we know that spring, in the cycle of Yin and Yang, is increasing Yang. Evening, on the other hand, is increasing Yin. The weight of the doors is a downward, passive pressure, another Yin impression.

Obviously this verse uses harmony of contrast, a common hokku technique. The point of the verse is the combination of spring, the time of beginnings, with the closing of the great doors and the coming of evening, both “ending” events. So in this one brief verse we have Yin contrasted with Yang, beginnings contrasted with endings, and that is what gives the verse its effect.

In it we feel that even in the freshness of spring, there is already the sense of impermanence and things aging and ending.

That is how to understand hokku. A hokku, you will recall, expresses a season through an event happening in that season. And in this hokku we feel the sense of transience that is so essential a part of both life and of hokku.

Here is another variation on the same verse:

The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close;
Spring is ending.

In spite of the setting still being spring, the effect now is predominantly a harmony of similarity: the closing of the great doors (at the end of the day), and the ending of spring. Now the weight of the great doors reflects our feelings of reluctance, our sense of time’s inexorable passing, at the departing of spring.

All of that in three short lines, eleven words, fourteen syllables.

We could rephrase the second variation, like this:

Spring ending;
The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close.

That way it flows a bit more smoothly.

David

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NOT LONG TO STAY: HOUSMAN’S LENTEN LILY

If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily


’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

wildprimrose

The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) in “hollow ground,” the little concave dips in the ground here and there, one can find wild primroses growing,

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

anemonenemorosa

In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.

David

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YIN AMID YANG: BUSON’S MISTY GRASSES

Here is a spring hokku by Buson. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of 19th-century American paintings of the rural countryside as it was in those quieter, greener days:

The grasses are misty,
The water silent;
Evening …

It gives a very good impression of the stillness of evening.

Though this is a spring hokku, it uses the hokku technique of “harmony of contrast,” because while spring is a time of increasing Yang energy (active, growing, warm), evening by contrast is an increasing Yin time of day (passive, receding, cool). Such a hokku expresses that even in the time of year when Yang is growing, Yin is nonetheless present, giving us a subtle feeling of aging, of transience amid the freshness, warmth, and new growth of spring. The mist, the water, and the silence are all Yin, as is the fading of the light of day. That predominance of Yin elements amid the growing Yang of spring is what makes this hokku effective in its very quiet way.

I always like to remind everyone that no knowledge of Japanese is needed to write hokku in English. I only add the Japanese version here because I have one particular faithful reader who always writes me a note if I do not include it.

The word translated here as “grasses” is kusa, which is somewhat more inclusive and general than the Engish, comprising not only grass but also other short plants below the level of shrubs. Higure is the time of sunset, of twilight.

Here is the transliterated Japanese with a literal translation:

Kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana
Grasses mist water at voice is-not evening kana

David

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FALLING STARS AND FAITHFUL WOMEN

Today I want to talk about a rather odd poem by John Donne (1572-1631). I will give it in its old spelling. Many find it rather difficult because of its old-fashioned language. It is one of those poems that sound rather magical and mysterious, like Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five, and that is part of its appeal. In fact I am discussing it today because it is re-used in a rather clever way in the book Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, a story in which magic plays a major part.

Listed as one of the “songs” of John Donne, it gives a very negative picture of the reliability of pretty women. This was not an uncommon theme in the literature of the 17th century. Even in the late 1500s Thomas Nash had written in his Anatomy of Absurdity,

Democritus accounted a faire chaste woman a miracle of miracles, a degree of immortality, a crowne of tryumph, because shee is so harde to be found.

Of course there are many women with negative experiences who might well say the same of the male gender, but that was not the spirit of the times.

Here is the poem stanza by stanza:

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
Or to keep off envies stinging,
And finde
What winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

The point is that all of these actions are things impossible to do, and Donne’s point, as we shall see, is that just as these things are impossible, so it is just as impossible to find a woman both attractive and faithful.

In Donne’s time it was not generally known that “falling stars” were actually fragments of space rock burning as they entered the earth’s atmosphere. Even Thomas Jefferson later said he did not believe that stones could fall from the sky.

The mandrake (mandragora) was a plant noted in old magic and medicine. Its root, often divided into two stalks reminiscent of human legs, reminded people so much of a human body that they fancied it really was a kind of miniature human plant creature. It was even believed that when it was pulled from the ground, it gave a shriek that could drive the person hearing it mad (J. K. Rowling makes use of this shriek in her “Harry Potter” tale), so dogs were used to pull the roots. Some mandrake roots were believed to be male, some female, thus the odd and impossible notion of a human getting a mandrake root pregnant. “Get with child” here means to make the root pregnant (with child), not to use a child to obtain a mandrake root. Mandrakes were associated with fertility; it was believed that the yellowish fruits were an aphrodisiac, but the leaves were thought to prevent conception.

Time was (and is) a mystery; where do years gone by disappear to?

In old religious imagery, the Christian Devil was believed to be an evil being who had cloven hoofs, that is, a hoof divided into two halves. This picture likely came from the old Greek religion with its half-man, half-goat satyrs and fauns, and of course from the Greek god Pan, a nature deity who was also the cause of panic.

Hearing mermaids singing might be thought a pleasant thing, but Donne here considers it an impossibility. One variant text of this line reads “Who ever heard a Mermayd singing….” T. S. Eliot likely had this line in mind when he wrote in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each;
I do not think that they will sing to me.

Avoiding the sting, the pain and discomfort caused by envy was also considered an impossibility, because envy is a common trait among humans, even very young ones.

Sailors knew which wind blew their ships to the Indies or to France, but which wind served to advance the cause of an honest mind?

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And sweare
No where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

If a man were born able to see strange sights, having the “second sight” which today we would call being psychic, if he were able to see things invisible to others, and if he were to ride on a journey taking ten thousand days and nights, a journey so long that age would turn his hair white, then we he returned, he might tell the author of the poem of all the strange and wondrous things he had seen. But still he would swear that nowhere on his journey had he found a woman both beautiful and faithful.

If thou findst one, let mee know,
Such a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
Though at next doore wee might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet shee
Will bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

The poet says to the traveller, “If you find one, let me know.” It would be a sweet journey to go and see her. But, the poet adds as an afterthought, even if you were to find one, do not bother to tell me. Because even though she might be as close as next door, and even though she might have been true/faithful when you found her, by the time you write a letter informing me of her, she would still have been unfaithful to two or three men by the time I could get to her.

The poem has an element of biting humor, but it is a kind of humor we do not much appreciate today because it is all at the expense of women. That may be one reason why Diana Wynne Jones inserted it for a witty counter-purpose in Howl’s Moving Castle (yes, the Hayao Miyazaki animated film based on the book is pleasant, but altered somewhat from the original book, which you will want to read to get the full effect).

David

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candle

We have now reached Candlemas, the old Celtic festival of Imbolc. Through Candlemas spring makes its quiet and unobtrusive beginning as sprouts first begin to shoot out of the earth.

The association with candles goes back to the Romans, who commemorated Ceres (Demeter) searching for her abducted daughter Persephone, and they did it by going through the dark streets with lights. Later it was given a Christian cast when that church came to power. You will recall that in Greek and Roman mythology, it was the annual stay of Persephone in the Underworld that brought the winter, and her return to the upper world, our world, that brought the spring.

To the Irish it was the time of the Goddess Brigid, whose symbol was fire, the fire and light that chases away the cold winter and allows spring to begin.

Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam too had fire associated with spring:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time bas but a little way
To flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.

Though it has a rather hedonistic implication, it is also a reminder that time and life and youth are fleeting. Life is short; the Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter, and it is already in flight. So what do we do with the time allotted to each of us? What new beginnings, what changes do we make as spring enters nearly unnoticed at Candlemas? That is up to each one of us.

David

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WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance:  by Philip Wilson Steer ;Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance: by Philip Wilson Steer; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

Today’s poem, the seventh in A Shropshire Lad, is often found in school anthologies. It is titled

WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The narrator is recalling a morning in the fields near the market town of Ludlow. which in 1887 had a population of about 5,935.

He tells us that “smoke stood up from Ludlow,” meaning the morning fires were lit in the houses and shops of the town, and their smoke was rising into the sky from the chimneys. And “mist blew off the Teme”; the mists that had gathered over the Teme River that flows through and past Ludlow during the cool of night were dispersing as the rising sun began to warm the air. Our narrator is a young farmer, and he has gone “blithe afield to ploughing,” happily enough off to the work of ploughing the field in preparation for planting. So we know it is spring as well. He is walking with his team of work horses “against the morning beam,” that is toward the East, toward the beams of the rising sun.

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

As the young man walks along vigorously with his team, whistling a tune, a blackbird looks out from a coppice, which is a little grove of trees, and the bird “flutes,” that is, sings out, as if in reply to the young man’s whistling. The blackbird is a poetic device that reveals a gnawing doubt deep in the young man’s mind, his doubt about life. This is what the blackbird, which we can take as a symbol of the dark unconscious, sings:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

A yeoman is a man who owns and cultivates his own property.

What point is there, the thought comes to the young man via the blackbird, in this constant rising every morning, day after day? What purpose is there in rising and going off to work, when inevitably one must at last lie down in death?

This is the same ancient concern about the ultimate futility of life that we find at the beginning of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose…

We find it expressed also in Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.

Our hopes may be fulfilled or not fulfilled, but no matter, it all turns to nothing in the end.

It is the old question: We work to eat, and eat to live, but for what do we live? It is a question each person must answer.

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

The young man sees the blackbird, with its yellow beak, picks up a stone, and throws it with such force and accuracy that he kills the bird, and it is silent. But that is not the end of the doubt:

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

The same doubt about life that was heard through the blackbird’s song now is perceived to come out of its real source, the mind of the lad. And he hears the doubt repeated as a song over and over as he walks along the dewy morning lane, a kind of temptation to nihilism:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

You may recall from the discussion of William Blake’s poem Sunflower Weary of Time that since time immemorial the West has symbolized the end of life, the place of death. The sun is always moving west, always moving toward rest and for humans, ultimately death. So the same road that leads the lad eastward to work, will lead him at last home to rest, and finally home to death, “eternal rest.”

The point of the poem is the seeming purposelessness of life, which, as the old saying goes, is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.

Young people in their late teens and early twenties often go through a period of this kind of existential Angst, of questioning the point of it all. It can also happen later, in what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the “Mid-life Crisis,” when one realizes one’s youthful hopes either have not been achieved and never will be, or else one has achieved them and found them to have “turned ashes,” as Fitzgerald wrote. The important thing is to get beyond this and to search for what is beyond both material acquisition and beyond one’s limited idea of “self.” But one can go through a lot of suffering in the process.

David

WHEN smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

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