In the previous posting, I discussed Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. I think of today’s much shorter poem by the same writer as a companion to that longer work. It seems to complete and lay to rest, in peace and simple beauty, the turbulent emotions expressed in the first poem. Both are in his book Sequel to Drum-Taps. The final surrender of Confederate troops had taken place on June 2, 1865, marking the end of the terrible American Civil War that had divided friends, family members, and the country.

When the war first broke out, Whitman began visiting the wounded in New York hospitals. Near the end of 1862, he received word that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, and was in Falmouth,Virginia. Whitman went to care for him, and got his first look at a field hospital and the results of the hasty and primitive surgery of the day. He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening…

From there, Whitman went to Washington, and for the next three years devoted much of his time there as a volunteer nurse and comforter to the wounded and dying of the war. His loving and compassionate nature gave the suffering a care that they desperately needed in those cruel days. He wrote to a friend, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield

Finally, the great tragedy of the Civil War came to and end, and with it came the time for a nation broken by years of violent enmity to unite. Whitman, with his experience of the suffering and death in the war, and with his compassion, wrote this poem:


Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

“Reconciliation” is the word over all, the word that covers all the wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, it is — with the sentiments it evokes — “beautiful as the sky.” Its beauty is

that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

Whitman recognizes the place of time in this, as in the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And with time work “the sisters Death and Night.” We have seen Whitman’s praise of Death in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” praised because it brought an end to the suffering of the dying; and here Death’s sister, Night, brings ease through sleep, forgetfulness of the horrors of war. It is beautiful how Whitman personifies them as two sisters, patiently and lovingly washing,

again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

They cleanse the world soiled by hate and war, a task completed not immediately, but by the repetition of their labors through time, so that

war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost.

Whitman shows us the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation in this symbolic image:

… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

To Whitman, human life was sacred. He wrote in Song of Myself,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

It is a view that reflects not only the Quakerism of his childhood, in which every human has the divine within, called the “Inward Light,” but also the influence of Transcendentalism, in which the world is an expression of divinity, and humans all parts of the “Over-soul.”

Reconciliation is made vivid and immediate to us by the image of Whitman walking to the coffin where his enemy lies — in his bending down, and gently kissing the face in the coffin.

Vengeance is a terrible and soul-destroying thing, and Whitman knows that. But beyond that knowledge is the feeling of his inherent sameness with the former enemy,

“a man divine as myself is dead…”

And Whitman sees the great tragedy in that hard fact, the tragedy that was the Civil War. We feel the end of that war in the man lying there; and in Whitman’s kiss, the seal that completes it: Reconciliation.

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T. S. Eliot wrote:
April is the cruelest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land…

Though he has his memorable phrases, I always have the feeling that Eliot is writing in a room hermetically sealed off from Nature, as though he lives more in the mind than in the world. His is a dry poetry of the intellect.

With Walt Whitman, on the other hand, the reader is thrust immediately into the real world, into the midst of life and emotion. Today we will look at one of his best-known poems,


When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

At first glance we might think this is just a poem about lost love, but there is far more to it than that.

First, we must recall two apparently unrelated things in the month of April:
1. Lilacs bloom in April
2. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. After lying in a coma for nine hours, he passed away on April 15, 1865. He had guided the young United States through the major part of the greatest crisis and upheaval since its founding — The Civil War.

It used to be common for houses — particularly farmhouses — to have a lilac planted nearby, so that its fragrance and beauty might be easily enjoyed. Whitman looks back on that April and its strange mixture of the scent of lilacs in the yard by the house door, and the death of Lincoln.

That death accounts for Whitman’s mourning. Each spring will bring blooming lilacs, and with them will inevitably come the memory of the death of Lincoln, the shocking death that happened

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d

But something else accompanies the lilacs: the great star — the evening star, which is the planet Venus — hanging low in the western sky on an April night. This star is a symbol of Lincoln to Whitman, a star that will set in the West. Those of you who are long-time readers here will recall that from time immemorial, the West has been associated with death, as has the evening star.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Each spring, like this one, will bring a trinity, a threeness of things to Whitman. Those three things are the lilac blooming perennial, the drooping star in the West, and the thought of “him I love” — that is, of Lincoln.

And here Whitman is overwhelmed by emotion, by a grief he expresses in these words:

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

The powerful, western fallen star is Lincoln. The shades of night are the dark shadow cast across the country by his assassination and death, a dark night of the spirit, a tearful night. The great star has disappeared; a black murk, an impenetrable gloom of sorrow and death has hidden the star. These bitter facts, the death and the deep, painful sorrow, are the “hands that hold me powerless.” Whitman is caught in the reality that Lincoln is dead, and nothing can change that. He feels helpless in his dark sorrow, the “harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.”

Now Whitman turns from his profound grief to the lilac:

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

He sees a lilac bush blooming in the yard of a simple old farmhouse, a bush planted near the white-washed picket fence that marks off the yard. It stands tall, with rich green leaves in the shape of a heart (a hint of Whitman’s deep emotions in this poem), and with spire-shaped, delicate blossoms with their wonderful, strong fragrance. From this farmyard bush, with its heart-shaped green leaves, Whitman picks a sprig of lilac. We shall see why later in the poem.

And now Whitman turns again, this time to a seemingly unrelated scene:

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

This is the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), a plain-looking bird with a very beautiful song. It is called a “Hermit” because it likes to hide away in leafy, forested areas and tends to solitary habits except during the mating season.

And what is its song?

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)

Whitman hears the thrush’s song as a “song of the bleeding throat,” that is, a song of pain and suffering. The bird, the thinks, sings because if it did not express its sorrow in that way, it would surely die. That is why he calls its song “Death’s outlet song of life,” and speaks of the bird as his brother; Whitman too feels he must sing out his grief for Lincoln’s death in poetry, or else that grief would kill him.

And now we turn to another scene:

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes — passing the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Whitman’s America was still a very rural America. He sees, passing through the land in spring, a journeying coffin. This is the funeral train that left Washington on April 21, 1865. It carried the coffin with Lincoln’s body on a long route that passed through Maryland, then Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, and into New York. Hundreds of thousands of people sadly witnessed the passing of the train and viewed the body in cities along the way. In New York City, on Tuesday, April 25th, the coffin was placed on a funeral wagon pulled by sixteen horses, and then it was drawn in procession down Broadway and other streets filled with mourning throngs. On return to the train, the coffin was carried on through New York and into Ohio, with more stops and processions along the way. It came to Indiana. On Sunday, April 30th, it passed through Richmond to the tolling of all the church bells. After more stops in Indiana, the funeral train proceeded into Illinois, where again thousands of mourners viewed the body. Finally it reached its destination: Springfield, Illinois — Lincoln’s hometown — where the body was at last laid to rest in its tomb.

So the funeral train passed through cities, lanes, woods, fields of grass and wheat, and through “apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,” that is, through blooming apple orchards. Everywhere mourners sadly watched its passing.

In this next segment Whitman describes the arrival of the train in towns and cities filled with sorrowing throngs, cities “draped in black.” He imagines the States themselves standing like “crape-veiled women,” that is, like women dressed in the black cloth and garments of mourning. He describes the funeral processions, the “flambeaus” (torches) at night — countless torches lit, sad and silent watching faces, funeral dirges, church services, tolling bells, the whole land in mourning. And as the coffin passes, Whitman reaches out his hand to place his plucked sprig of lilac upon it as a sign of his love and his grief:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Whitman wrote this poem in the summer of 1865, when the memory and shock of Lincoln’s death and of the Civil War were still fresh. In offering his sprig of lilac, he says he offers it

(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.

That is, he makes his offering of lilac not just to Lincoln, but symbolically to all the coffins of the dead. And in doing so, he desires to sing a song, an ode to “sacred death.” He brings (in his mind) bouquets of roses and lilies, but mostly, at this time in spring, the lilac that is the first-blooming of them. He imagines himself breaking sprig after spring of lilac blossom, filling his arms with it, and bringing it all to pour the fragrant flowers upon the coffins of all the dead:

All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)

He recalls the great star that drooped in the Western sky:

O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d,
As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on;)
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

He muses that the star, declining in the sky night after night, had been a sign with something to tell him as he walked in the evenings, unable to sleep. He sees now that star was filled with woe (sadness, misfortune), and as it sank to disappear in darkness, so Whitman’s spirit sank with it as well.

Now he returns to the Hermit Thrush:

Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

He feels the thrush is calling to him, and he says he understands, and will come, but he wants to wait a moment beneath the star that reminds him of Lincoln, because the memory “holds and detains me.”

He sees himself as a kind of hermit bird, and he asks,

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?

How shall Whitman sing for the dead Lincoln? How shall he ornament his song for the departed soul? And how shall he make the grave fragrant? His answer:

Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.

The perfume for the grave shall be winds from the sea, winds that blow from the East and From the West, and meet on the prairies of the Midwest. Those, together with the breath of Whitman’s poem, shall be (symbolically) the perfume for Lincoln’s grave.

But, Whitman asks, what shall he hang (again symbolically) on the walls of the tomb in which Lincoln is buried?

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

He answers:

Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific;
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.

He will deck it with pictures of spring growth, of farms, homes, of the Fourth Month (April) evening at sunset, with grey smoke, with the gold of the setting sun, with fresh grass and the leaves of trees, with the glassy flow of the river, dappled by wind, and hills and shadows, and the nearby city with its houses and chimneys, with all of the activity of life, of workshops, and of workmen returning to their homes. In short, he will ornament it with America:

Lo! body and soul! this land!
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships;
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in the light—Ohio’s shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover’d with grass and corn.

Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill’d noon;
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.

He speaks to the thrush, urging it to sing:

Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the bushes;
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid, and free, and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear……yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

To Whitman the voice of the Hermit Thrush, a song filled with woe, is like a human voice — a reflection of his own sorrow.

He talks about how, in the midst of everyday life, there came the dark cloud of word of the assassination, and suddenly he felt he knew Death:

Now while I sat in the day, and look’d forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring, and the farmer preparing his crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds, and the storms;)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Shocked and saddened by the news of Lincoln’s death, he wanted to leave human company, to go down to the swamp in the evening’s dim light, down to where the Hermit Thrush sang its lonely song:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv’d us comrades three;
And he sang what seem’d the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

By “us comrades three” he means the lilac, the evening star, and the thought of the dead Lincoln. And there in the swamp and shadows, Whitman listens, and his feelings become one with the song of the bird:

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.

Whitman feels the song of the thrush is a song in honor of Death:


Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.

Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Whitman sees that Death is a part of life — of existence — and should be honored and welcomed for its service as the “Dark Mother” who eventually receives all into her embrace. If others will not praise Death, Whitman will, and sings his song:

Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!

Whitman’s song to Death and the song of the Hermit Thrush join:

To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.

As he sings, Whitman sees images, visions of the Civil War and its battles, its suffering and its fields of the dead:

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.

I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody;
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;
But I saw they were not as was thought;
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer’d not;
The living remain’d and suffer’d—the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Whitman knew what he was talking about; he had been a nurse in the Civil War, and saw suffering and death first-hand and immediate. But, he says, all those dead young men were at last at peace. They no longer suffered. It was the living who suffered now for the loss of those precious lives — the mothers, the wives, the children, the friends of the dead and the armies of those who fought but survived.

And with this, Whitman is at last free. He has remembered the sorrow the lilac evoked, and the mourning with the appearance of the star, and the thoughts of the death of Lincoln and of all those who died in the Civil War. He has sung his song of praise to Death, who has released them from their suffering. He can now leave, can pass by the visions of the dead, pass by the night, pass on from the holding of his comrade’s hands; he can leave the song of the Hermit Thrush, and his own song. He can leave the lilac and its heart-shaped leaves, and he can end his song of sorrow and turn from the evening star shining low in the western sky:

Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul,
(Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.

But though his song is over, and his mourning complete with the praise of Death and its release from suffering, he will not forget the experience:

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands…and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.

He takes with him the memory of what that night has brought: the song of the Hermit Thrush, his own chant/song united with it, the luminous evening star, the tall lilac with its heavily-fragrant blossoms. The lilac, star and his thoughts are his comrades, holding his hand, saying visually what the the call of the thrush says in song. They are to be his lifelong comrades — his companions, because with them he will always remember, every spring, the dead that he loves so well: the soldiers who died in the war, and Lincoln, “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” He will remember the lilac, the star, and the hermit bird’s song joined with his own,

“There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.”

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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):


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.


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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.


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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.


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.


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.


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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


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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).


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